Scott Morrison says he is “upset” after reports a second woman was sexually assaulted by the same man who allegedly raped former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins inside Parliament House.
The prime minister said he was disturbed by the allegations, which were published by the Australian newspaper on Saturday. The woman argued that if the government had adequately dealt with the incident involving Higgins in 2019, her assault would never have occurred.
Morrison said he perceived broader problems with the “workplace culture” that exists in Parliament House that must improve.
But Morrison insisted all ministers and political staffers who had knowledge of Higgins’ alleged rape sought to refer the matter to police.
Morrison also welcomed Higgins’ decision to proceed with a formal complaint to the Australian federal police about her alleged rape inside Parliament House in 2019.
However on Saturday morning, the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, accused the government of treating Higgins’s alleged assault as a “political problem” rather than a criminal offence and appointing Morrison’s former chief of staff to lead a review.
Higgins alleges the rape occurred in early 2019 inside the office of now-defence minister Linda Reynolds. Higgins has, since the incident, resigned from her job as a Liberal staffer.
Morrison claims his office did not find out about the incident at Parliament House until last week and he was not informed until Monday.
But a text message exchange between Higgins and a fellow Liberal staffer within a fortnight of the incident calls this account into question.
In the message, the Liberal staffer said he had spoken directly with a member of Morrison’s staff. Higgins this week said at least three of Morrison’s staff had prior knowledge of the incident.
Morrison’s former chief of staff, the current Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary, Phil Gaetjens, has been tasked with leading a review into departmental communications regarding the incident.
But Albanese on Saturday criticised the appointment of Gaetjens, saying the review would not be independent.
He said it was clear that Higgins was “made to feel there would be consequences for her career if she pursued this matter”.
“You need that arm’s length capacity to deal with these issues, independent of government or any political party, to deal with it transparently and it needs to have the authority to deal with it,” Albanese told reporters.
“We know violence against women and children is a scourge, it is prevalent in all areas of society, but the parliament of Australia should be setting an example … we should be an institution people can look to for best practice.”
Higgins has also demanded a review into the conditions under which ministerial and parliamentary staff are employed.
“Political advisers have very few protections, resources and confidential reporting mechanisms to address any workplace issues,” she said.
Morrison agreed cultural changes must be implemented.
“What I must do and continue to do is focus on ensuring that the needs of our staff are addressed, that they are safe, that those who have suffered the trauma and horror of events like this in the past are respected and that we give every support
we can to ensure that the police authorities can take up these matters as discreetly as they possibly can,” he said.
Albanese said he was “shocked” by the allegations a second woman was sexually assaulted by the same man who allegedly raped Higgins.
“My heart goes out to the person concerned.”