Scott Morrison has rejected claims he misled parliament over the political probe into who knew what in his office about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins after explosive revelations an inquiry was secretly suspended.
In bombshell evidence to Senate estimates today, the Prime Minister’s “right hand man” and senior public servant Phil Gaetjens revealed the political probe into who knew what and when about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins had been paused on the grounds that the AFP privately warned it could interfere with the police investigation.
Crucially, Mr Gaetjens also revealed he told the Prime Minister’s office and the Prime Minister himself this information on the same day, March 9, that he spoke to the AFP.
“On the 9th of March, the AFP Commissioner informed me it would be strongly advisable to hold off finalising the records of interviews with staff until the AFP could clarify whether the criminal investigation into Ms Higgins’ sexual assault allegations might traverse any issues covered by the administrative process I was undertaking,’’ Mr Gaetjens said.
“On the 9th of March, because of the Commissioner’s advice, I emailed the Prime Minister’s office staff to tell them that I would be not completing the documentation, as per the commissioner’s advice, and at that same time, I also told the Prime Minister of that, just in case his staff asked him any questions as to what was going on.”
But despite questions in Parliament about the probe last week, the Prime Minister never revealed the inquiry had been paused or delayed on the basis of AFP advice.
Critically, Mr Morrison told Parliament he had not provided any “update” on Mr Gaetjens’ report, despite the March 9 discussions with his office revealed in Senate estimates.
“He has not provided me with a further update about when I might expect that report, but I have no doubt the opposition will be able to ask questions of him in Senate estimates next week, which is the appropriate place where those matters can be raised with the secretary of my department,’’ Mr Morrison said.
This remark is a big problem because on March 9, Mr Gaetjens said he told the Prime Minister’s office he needed to pause the report.
The development has been branded “extraordinary” by Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek as MPs warned the PM needed to explain his answers to Parliament.
It is a serious matter to mislead Parliament or to provide false information when being asked questions but it generally rests on whether or not you deliberately misled the House.
In Parliament, the Prime Minister flatly rejected any claim he had misled the House of Representatives.
“I completely reject the assertion put forward by the Leader of the Opposition,” the Prime Minister said.
“There was no deadline or timetable that was available to me when I reported to the House.”
But Labor leader Anthony Albanese accused the Prime Minister of failing to give “straight answers”.
On March 17, the Prime Minister also told Hansard he had not received the report but again didn’t mention his discussions on March 9 about police concerns it could interfere with the criminal investigation.
“No, I have not received that report. I’ll report further once I have received that report,’’ Mr Morrison said.
“As I’ve said in this place, and my own inquiries on this matter, then, no. No is the answer to the question in relation to what my office knew. I set out very clearly when my office learnt about those matters.
“I inquired about those matters with my office, and we have gone through a process, which we have done on other occasions, with the department secretary. When he has completed that report, he will provide it to me.”
Then on March 18, he was asked about the status of the report again. Once again he did not mention the inquiry had been paused or that it might be on the basis of AFP advice.
“Those inquiries are being made by the secretary of my department, the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Those matters are matters for the secretary,’’ he said.
“I don’t involve myself in the investigations or inquiries that the secretary is making independently of me or my office. Those are matters for him. In fact, if I were involved in that process, that would be highly inappropriate.”
Mr Morrison said the report was being done at “arm’s length”.
“This work is being done by the secretary of my department. It’s being done at arm’s length from me. I have no involvement in that process, and nor should I.
“That would be inappropriate. The secretary should conduct his inquiries as he sees fit and without any interference or any involvement from me as Prime Minister. That would be highly inappropriate.”
Earlier today, Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw warned the Prime Minister’s probe into who knew what and when could interfere with the police investigation raising the prospect the political probe could be suspended.
Mr Kershaw warned anyone linked to the sexual assault investigation that the criminal investigation must run its course.
“I also spoke with Mr (Phil) Gaetjens, secretary of the department of prime minister and cabinet, that I’m particularly concerned about the intersection of his inquiry with our investigation,” Commissioner Kershaw told a Senate estimates
“I will be limited in what I can say to ensure the active criminal investigation is not compromised,” he said.
“It is being treated with due care and attention including with oversight by our sensitive investigations oversight board.
“It’s not helpful at all and it’s also quite a risky undertaking,’’ he said about the parliament probe.
Asked directly if he had told Me Gaetjens to “stall, pause or alter his investigation” the AFP commissioner replied, “No.”
Ms Higgins has alleged she was raped in March 2019, by another Liberal staffer and that in the aftermath several senior advisers in the Prime Minister’s office and scores of people in ministerial offices, the Australian Federal Police and parliamentary services and security were aware of “an incident” but failed to provide her adequate support.
The question of who knew what and when will be probed tonight by the ABC’s Four Corners in a special investigation into whether the PM’s claim that his office didn’t know about the alleged rape is accurate.
Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching said it was clear enough what his refusal to reveal how Parliament handled the alleged rape in the aftermath looked like to voters.
“You know how it looks? It looks like there’s a cover up going on,’’ she said.