Federal police say they are close to concluding their inquiries into the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins as they revealed that a further 19 allegations of sexual misconduct involving parliamentarians, their staff or “official establishments” had been reported to police since the former Liberal staffer went public.
The AFP commissioner, Reece Kershaw, revealed in Senate estimates on Tuesday that his Australian Capital Territory counterpart had told him in relation to the Higgins case that “a brief of evidence is likely to be provided to the ACT director of public prosecutions in coming weeks”. A brief of evidence is sent to prosecutors once investigators consider enough evidence has been gathered to substantiate a criminal charge.
Kershaw also revealed that between 24 February and 17 May the AFP had received 40 reports relating to the 19 allegations. Of those, 12 have been identified as sensitive investigations, 10 of which were referred to state and territory police for assessment. One remains with the AFP for “ongoing inquiries” and one has been finalised.
The commissioner said the remaining seven matters did not relate to electorate officers, ministerial staff or official establishments, and of those five had been referred to state and territory police and two had been dropped as no criminal offence was identified.
With the Higgins matter now moving to a potential prosecution, Phil Gaetjens, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, told the finance committee that a separate inquiry he has been conducting into what staff in Scott Morrison’s office knew about the alleged rape before 12 February this year would conclude within weeks.
Morrison requested that Gaetjens check communications between his parliamentary staff and Higgins because there were conflicting accounts about whether senior players in his office were aware of key details of the alleged assault before the former Liberal staffer went public with her story on 15 February.
But Gaetjens gave no guarantee that the findings of his investigation would be made public, because that was ultimately a decision for the prime minister, not him.
The secretary also refused to answer questions about how many of the prime minister’s political staff he had interviewed as part of the process on the grounds of “personal privacy” – which provoked outrage from Labor senators at the hearing, and declarations of a “cover-up”.
Gaetjens also told the committee Higgins had not been part of his investigation at the start, even though her recollections about who she had spoken to, and when, would be relevant in establishing the extent of knowledge in Morrison’s office before mid-February this year. The alleged rape occurred in March 2019.
The secretary said Higgins had approached him, seeking to be involved. Gaetjens said he would interview the former Liberal staffer imminently.
In the legal and constitutional affairs committee, Kershaw refused to give any further details about the “status and particulars” of the criminal investigation apart from the update about timing. He said he could not provide a “running commentary” on who had been interviewed because it was “imperative not to imperil” a potential prosecution.
Both Gaetjens and Kershaw were also pressed in their committees about an earlier occasion where they gave conflicting accounts to a previous estimates hearing.
During the last estimates hearing, Gaetjens told a committee he had paused his inquiry on the advice of Kershaw, who was concerned it might disrupt the criminal investigation. But Kershaw’s evidence on the same day was more equivocal.
On Tuesday it emerged that Gaetjens had phoned Kershaw after the conflicting accounts were provided to resolve the inconsistency. Kershaw said it was not “unusual or surprising” that Gaetjens would contact him given “different interpretations” of the “nuance” of their evidence.
Gaetjens confirmed the conversation but told the committee he had not made a contemporaneous record of what was said. Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, expressed incredulity there was no file note of the conversation, given the gravity of the issues.
Kershaw said Gaetjens had made “the right call in suspending the inquiry”, to wait for advice about whether there was a “problematic intersection” between the AFP and PMC inquiry.
“The advice is from ACT policing that there is no problematic intersection, so in my view the administrative inquiry can recommence.”
Kershaw also confirmed evidence provided in answers to questions on notice that the AFP informed the office of the then home affair minister, Peter Dutton, in October 2019 about the alleged rape.
“In accordance with routine practices, in October 2019 AFP media notified the then minister’s office in relation to a media enquiry received by ACT Policing, about an alleged sexual assault at parliament house,’’ the answer stated.
Police wanted to “inform the minister’s office that a media inquiry had been received and that ACT Policing was responding”, it said.
“The first recorded contact with [Dutton] was 11 February 2021.”