A growing number of Liberal MPs believe Defence Minister Linda Reynolds should resign over her handling of a reported sexual assault in her office, as she said she was deeply sorry some of her actions added to her staffer’s distress.
Senator Reynolds on Thursday defended her decision not to tell Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the alleged rape of former staffer Brittany Higgins out of concern for her welfare and privacy.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds during Question Time.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
“At the time this was a difficult, it was a complex and it was a highly sensitive matter,” Senator Reynolds said.
While Mr Morrison is standing by Senator Reynolds, at least five Liberal MPs are of the belief she should resign. The Prime Minister has also publicly rebuked Senator Reynolds for not telling him of the alleged assault, and on Thursday said Ms Higgins was not properly supported after coming forward.
Liberal MPs, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, questioned why there appeared to be as many as five days between when Senator Reynolds was informed of the alleged assault and when she met with Ms Higgins.
One Liberal MP, who wished not to be named, said Senator Reynolds should have immediately provided more support to Ms Higgins.
Scott Morrison has rebuked Senator Reynolds for not telling him of the alleged sexual assault.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
“By definition, if an alleged rape victim feels they weren’t adequately supported, then they weren’t adequately supported,” the MP said. “She should have offered to support her in going into the police and making the complaint.”
Another MP said the failure of Senator Reynolds to directly alert the Prime Minister or his office showed a “serious lack of judgment”.
“It’s time to start thinking about it [whether she should stand down]. She has serious questions to answer,” they said. “I don’t think she has been up to the task on a number of fronts.”
Brittany Higgins claims she was raped inside Parliament House.Credit:Facebook
Another Liberal MP said her response to the sexual assault allegation was “another example of poor judgment”.
Senator Reynolds had been facing criticism of her handling of the $90 billion future submarines program and her response to the Brereton war crimes inquiry before the revelations of the sexual assault this week.
Ms Higgins says she was raped in March, 2019, by another staffer of Senator Reynolds in the Defence Minister’s office after security guards let them into the building late the previous night. She says she felt pressured afterwards to choose between her job and pursuing the matter with police.
Mr Morrison on Thursday said “everyone here tried to do the right thing” but conceded more could have been done.
“They took advice and followed the advice,” he told Parliament. “Even when that has been done, it hasn’t done the job.”
Ms Higgins this week told of her distress when Senator Reynolds and the minister’s then-acting chief of staff Fiona Brown set up a meeting on April 1 about the matter in the same room where the alleged rape took place.
Senator Reynolds told Parliament that during that meeting with Ms Higgins she “made it clear to Brittany that she would have my full support in whatever course of action she decided to take and she would have full access to counselling services”.
“My chief of staff and I moved quickly to ensure that Brittany was given access to the police should she wish to make a complaint,” she said. Mr Morrison revealed on Thursday the minister herself also followed up with the AFP deputy commissioner.
“I became aware incrementally over a period of days of Brittany’s story through private conversations with her and my then-chief of staff and via reports from parliamentary authorities,” Senator Reynolds said.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds became emotional during question time after earlier saying she was “deeply sorry” if her handling of sexual assault allegations has caused a former staff member distress.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
“For my part, I am deeply sorry that Brittany felt unsupported at the time of the incident and in the months that followed, and in fact the years that followed.”
Senator Reynolds said Ms Higgins’ story had “occasioned a wide reckoning of how women are treated in this building, it has prompted a national conversation about how we ensure women are safe in their workplace wherever that is”.
Later in question time, Senator Reynolds appeared emotional trying to answer a question on behalf of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and his administration of security grants.
Outside of the chambers, Minister for Women Marise Payne said she had “absolute confidence in Linda Reynolds”.
“But I also understand that in the depths of trauma, in the depths of distress, sometimes it is just so hard to see a way through or out – that no matter what happens or what is done, it may never seem to be the right thing or be enough of the response that one is seeking.”
Three counsellors will arrive in Parliament House on Monday and phone support services for advisers and MPs expanded as Mr Morrison acknowledged the past week had been “traumatic” for staff.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham will also spend the next few days consulting leaders from other parties and crossbenchers on who should lead an independent review of how parliament deals with workplace complaints. One person involved with these discussions said on Thursday it was at the “most embryonic” of stages.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has suggested former sex discrimination commissioner Liz Broderick or domestic violence and equality campaigner Natasha Stott Despoja for the job.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed on Thursday an anonymous tip about criminal conduct in Parliament House sparked a security review last year to examine whether officials had interfered with a suspected crime scene in relation to the alleged rape.
Former federal security inspector-general Vivienne Thom was called in by Senate President Scott Ryan and Speaker Tony Smith to review the explosive claims and view footage of closed-circuit television to check serious allegations against officials in the building.
Senator Ryan declined to say in question time on Thursday whether he passed on the reported security breach or alleged assault to the Prime Minister’s Office, saying he would consult with Mr Smith first on what he would say.
He said no member of parliament or their staff had viewed the footage but the AFP had been provided it upon request.
Senator Ryan said he struggled “to find the words, be they formal or informal, to fully express my sorrow, occasionally frustration and anger, at what has occurred in this workplace – the alleged sexual assault”.
“It’s occurred on my watch as a Senator and indeed as a custodian of this place,” he said.
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