Politics

Federal politics

The holes in their story
The Morrison government’s cover-up is falling apart

Parliament House security guard Nikola Anderson. Image via Four Corners

“The issue here in this terrible incident,” Scott Morrison told parliament on February 17 this year, “is that at the time this occurred there was a security breach involved, and that was the matter that was addressed at the time.” He was of course referring to the revelation a few days earlier of the alleged rape in Parliament House of Brittany Higgins.

“Indeed,” he went on to say, “there was a staff member whose employment was terminated as a result of that security breach. At that time there was no advice, certainly to our office, that this incident involved any alleged sexual assault.”

What the prime minister didn’t reveal was that this was a “security breach” in which the actual security guard involved was never even interviewed. As Nikola Anderson, who was working in Parliament House on March 23, 2019, told Four Corners, “What was the security breach? Because the night that we were on shift, there was no security breach. Their pass enables them to be where they want to be within Parliament House.”

If it was an actual security breach, Anderson should have been fired for facilitating it. If it was an actual security breach in the minister for defence’s office, it would have triggered national security investigations, AFP investigations, incident reports by security, and any number of others. The president of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives would have been called in to facilitate and approve them. Instead, there was nothing. Well, not nothing.

What the prime minister didn’t reveal in parliament is that members of his own office were aware of the incidents of that night from the very start. Two days after the alleged rape, Morrison’s own chief of staff John Kunkel and his adviser Daniel Wong were involved in the termination of the alleged perpetrator’s employment – they were liaising with Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ then chief of staff, Fiona Brown, at the time.

As reported by Karen Middleton in The Saturday Paper, the government maintained “this was related to the security breach by the male adviser and nothing else”.

So two people were in the defence minister’s office and had authorised access, yet only one of them was fired.

The “security breach” story was soon tweaked by the government – following numerous media enquiries – to say that this wasn’t the first time the male adviser had been in the minister’s office for “non-work purposes”, hence his rapid dismissal. Eventually this transmogrified into a catch-all explanation that the adviser’s earlier security breach “related to classified documents” – giving the whole thing a national-security cover to avoid further questions.

Security guard Nikola Anderson reported what she knew on the night up to her superiors, and noted it in her work diary (“Incident happened. Naked in Reynolds’s office.”) Other security guards did similar checks later on, and found Higgins alone and still asleep hours later.

Senior members of the government may have known of the alleged rape immediately. But giving them the benefit of the doubt for a moment, if they thought there was an actual security breach in the defence minister’s office, they must have asked security managers what happened, and also checked CCTV footage and access logs. They would have learnt that there were two people in the minister’s office, that one of them left soon afterwards, while one young woman was passed out, and that the two of them were there for non-work purposes, but… somehow they concluded it was a security breach? What were these two doing, if not work? And why was only one of them fired for doing it? If there had been a security breach why did the Department of Finance, which manages the ministerial wing, call in the cleaners ahead of their usual schedule? Surely this would have crimped any investigation into what happened, security breach or other.

In the ensuing days, Higgins also told various parties including Minister Reynolds, Fiona Brown, the AFP and eventually also ACT Policing that she had been (allegedly) raped.

A little-understood fact about Parliament House is that (as per Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice), “By long-established practice … police do not conduct any investigations, make arrests, or execute any process (e.g. search warrants) in the parliamentary precincts without consultation with the Presiding Officers.”

The presiding officers are the president of the Senate (Scott Ryan) and the speaker of the House (Tony Smith). When Higgins went to the police in Belconnen in early April, her case was assigned to the ACT Policing Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Team, who approached the AFP at Parliament House to access the CCTV footage. This request was discussed with the presiding officers, who in their wisdom decreed that the footage, while not provided to ACT Policing, would be held (not deleted) in case of further investigations. Brittany Higgins dropped her complaint soon afterwards, when the federal election was called.

The point, however, is that both the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate were aware in April 2019 of an investigation into a sexual assault in Parliament House. (They were made aware of this allegation again when an anonymous dossier of material relating to the alleged incident was sent to them in March 2020.)

If at this point you’re wondering how it is that no one told the prime minister, bear in mind too that the AFP is obliged to report anything of a politically sensitive matter to the minister for home affairs (Peter Dutton); that Higgins’ new boss Michaelia Cash was also told of the alleged sexual assault; that the special minister of state, Alex Hawke, was also told about the termination; that Fiona Brown subsequently went to work in the prime minister’s office; and that the minister for finance (Mathias Cormann at the time) is responsible for staffing in the ministerial wing, and was also therefore implicated in the termination of the male adviser’s employment, and Cormann was also briefed about the alleged “incident” by the presiding officers in October 2020.

Through all this time, bizarrely, the prime minister and the home affairs minister state that they were aware there was a security breach in the defence minister’s office, but neither of them or their offices followed it up. And no one thought to appraise them of the actual nature of the incident. For almost two years they’ve been operating on the presumption that there was an unresolved security breach in the defence minister’s office. This is incompetent at best, wilfully blind at worst. (Meanwhile Phil Gaetjens, the secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, was given the job of finding out when staff from the prime minister’s office knew about Higgins case, after she alleged to have corresponded with the PMO in the aftermath of her alleged assault. On Monday in Senate estimates, Gaetjens revealed not only that he’d put his inquiry on ice but also that he hadn’t even spoken to her before doing so.)

Following are questions I put to president of the Senate Scott Ryan over several weeks, none of which received a proper response. The excuse for not replying was that there’s an ongoing police investigation into the matter, but I leave it with readers to wonder how the political response to an alleged crime could influence an actual police investigation if no ministers or presiding officers were ever involved.

Questions to the president of the Senate:

– In what circumstances would security guards be facilitating a breach of security, if parliamentary staff members are technically permitted after-hours access? 

– Are there circumstances in which security guards must NOT allow access to registered ministerial staff members?

– Have any security personnel been disciplined or dismissed in relation to the apparent “security breach” on March 23, 2019?

– What was the exact nature of the alleged “security breach” on March 23, 2019?

– Why was only one of the ministerial staffers dismissed as a result of the alleged “security breach” on March 23, 2019?

– What actions were taken to ensure a similar security breach won’t reoccur?

– When did you (presiding officers) become aware that there was an allegation of sexual assault in relation to the “incident” on March 23, 2019, and that it was being investigated by police?

– Did you or your office inform the special minister of state, the minister for finance, the home affairs minister, the prime minister or any of their offices of this allegation of sexual assault and/or the investigation of it prior to March 2020?

If you don’t believe a word of the “security breach” story, you’re not alone. As for getting a straight answer out of anyone in the government, or any statement of accountability, it’s unfortunately not as easy as it might seem.

In Tuesday’s press conference, Morrison spoke about other recent revelations of Liberal staffers masturbating over a female MP’s desk: “I am shocked, and I am disgusted. It is shameful.” He went on to say that “it has been a month of such reports. Indeed, reports involving the conduct of staff, and of Coalition government members and ministers … We must get this house in order. We must put the politics aside on these things, and we must recognise this problem, acknowledge it, and we must fix it.”

It was an incredible moment, if only because it drew attention to the vast gulf between Morrison’s statement of disgust and his own actions in the relation to the alleged rape of a young staffer. His government has done nothing to fix anything. All they tried to do was cover it up.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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