Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has given conflicting accounts to the Senate of meetings with police about former staffer Brittany Higgins’ allegations a colleague raped her in the minister’s office.
Ms Higgins is expected to give a formal statement to police on Wednesday to reactivate an investigation. She has alleged the man raped her in Senator Reynolds’ office after security guards let the pair into the building late on Friday, March 22, 2019.
Two other women have since come forward with allegations of sexual assault, and one woman alleges sexual harassment, by the same man.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have established the identity of the alleged rapist but have chosen not to name him on legal grounds.
Senator Reynolds has faced repeated questions in Parliament from Labor and the Greens about what she knew and when, and who else she told about the allegations. Last week, a number of Liberal MPs questioned the minister’s handling of the rape claim.
She revealed for the first time on Tuesday she discussed the matter with then-special minister of state Alex Hawke, but said “to the best of my recollection” they spoke about the accused man, who was sacked for the security breach, not about Ms Higgins.
Last Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed Senator Reynolds had met an AFP assistant commissioner shortly after learning from Ms Higgins what had happened to her.
Senator Reynolds confirmed this on Monday but batted away most questions by saying the details were Ms Higgins’ story to tell.
Pressed again in question time on Tuesday, Senator Reynolds said she had in fact had two meetings involving police in the week after the alleged rape.
“I met on 1 April with the AFP, Brittany and my then-chief of staff. During the course of that meeting, it became apparent to me that the matter was more serious than the security breach to which I had been previously advised,” she told the Senate.
She then met with the AFP assistant commissioner on April 4, “at their request”.
“Just to be totally clear and I’ll say again so there’s no misunderstanding, I did meet with the Australian Federal Police twice,” Senator Reynolds said.
Ms Higgins has said the April 1 meeting was held in the office where the alleged rape occurred – an insensitivity for which Senator Reynolds and Mr Morrison have now apologised – but has never said police were present.
In response to further questions, the minister said the April 1 meeting involved only her, Ms Higgins and her then-chief of staff, and she organised for Ms Higgins to meet police separately.
Labor Senate leader Penny Wong queried which version of events was correct, saying: “I’m advised that Ms Higgins says she never attended a meeting with the AFP with the minister.”
Senator Reynolds then said she would double check.
“I am recalling and making sure that I’m recalling to the best of my recollections about the circumstances two years ago,” she said.
Later on Tuesday, the minister tabled a written statement in the Senate clarifying there were no police present at the April 1 meeting.
Meanwhile, Senate President Scott Ryan has advised records indicated the accused man had not held a lobbyist pass to access Parliament House after he was sacked.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, passing on the advice, said he could not categorically say the man had never re-entered the building because records of access by non-pass holders were kept in handwritten logs.
Liberal MP Celia Hammond, who was tasked with reviewing the culture within Coalition offices, told a meeting of her colleagues she had heard of much “confusion and anxiety” during conversations with MPs and staff over the past week.
She has asked Mr Morrison to roll the work she was asked to do into an independent inquiry backed by all parties. Details of this inquiry are expected to be announced early next week.