Scott Morrison’s departmental head Phil Gaetjens has suspended his inquiry into who in the prime minister’s office knew what and when, in relation to Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation, until the conclusion of the criminal trial.
The director of public prosecutions in the Australian Capital Territory, Shane Drumgold, has advised Higgins, a former Liberal party staffer, not to participate in the Gaetjens review because it could be prejudicial to ongoing criminal proceedings.
After Higgins alleged she was raped in March 2019 by a more senior colleague in parliament house while working for the then defence industry minister, Linda Reynolds, Morrison asked Gaetjens, the secretary of the department of prime minister and cabinet, to check whether staff in his political office had any knowledge of the allegation before it became public in February this year.
Morrison requested that Gaetjens check communications between his parliamentary staff and Higgins on 17 February, because there were conflicting accounts about whether senior staff in the prime minister’s office were aware of key details of the alleged assault before Higgins went public with her story on 15 February 2021.
Higgins initially sought to be involved in that investigation. But Drumgold subsequently advised her to “carefully consider not participating in any interview” because it “could ultimately result in publicity that is prejudicial to legal proceedings whilst the matter is sub curia”.
In the first week of August, a 26-year-old man was summoned to appear before the ACT magistrates court in September over the alleged sexual assault of the former Morrison government staffer at parliament house.
Phil Gaetjens, head of prime minister and cabinet. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
The man will face one charge of sexual intercourse without consent in relation to the alleged assault in parliament house in March 2019. His lawyer says his client “absolutely and unequivocally denies any form of sexual activity took place”.
Gaetjens issued a statement on Monday confirming his inquiry would be shelved.
“On 26 August 2021, I was informed of media reports that Mr Shane Drumgold, ACT director of public prosecutions, considered that the continuation or finalisation of my inquiry could prejudice the criminal proceedings now on foot,” the secretary said.
“My department separately confirmed those views with Mr Drumgold and I sought legal advice on the matter on the same day,” he said. “On the basis of that legal advice received on 27 August 2021, I have suspended my inquiry until the conclusion of the criminal trial.”
“This is to ensure that the inquiry can have no adverse impact on the criminal prosecution. The action I have taken is strictly in response to the legal advice I have received, and does not relate to any of the content of the inquiry.”
“No inferences in relation to that content can be drawn from the legal advice nor my decision to suspend the inquiry. I have advised the prime minister of my decision.”
In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html