In senate estimates yesterday, it was revealed by Phil Gaetjens, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, that his inquiry into the Brittany Higgins rape allegation case had been “paused” since March 9.
Dropping this bombshell, he said the work of the inquiry is no longer “being undertaken”, on the advice of the Australian Federal Police. This was a decision that had not been made public at the time.
At a different senate estimates committee on Monday, police commissioner Reece Kershaw directly contradicted Gaetjens’ account, saying this was not the case, and he hadn’t asked Gaetjens to halt the inquiry.
Labor senator Katy Gallagher said it was a “classic” move from Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
“Sends you here today, telling the parliament that you will answer questions around an inquiry, all the time knowing you wouldn’t be able to,” she told Gaetjens in senate estimates.
“He already knew that you had stopped your inquiry…Not accountable to the parliament, not being upfront and sent you here to do his work which is to say you’re going to find out nothing.”
In mid-February, Gaetjens had been given the responsibility of heading up an internal inquiry as to what the Prime Minister’s office knew about the rape allegation made by Brittany Higgins. Last week, Morrison told parliament he hadn’t yet been updated of the inquiry’s progress, choosing not to mention that it had already been put on pause.
Gaetjens, under questioning from Senator Sarah Hanson-Young on Monday, also said he had not interviewed Brittany Higgins before suspending the investigation.
“She would like to know when you will speak to her, Mr Gaetjens,” Hanson-Young said. “To come in here and pretend that you care about her welfare, as part of the opportunity to cover up on behalf of the government is frankly disgusting.”
Labor MP Kate Thwaites agrees that Brittany Higgins deserves more respect from the government.
Thwaites told Women’s Agenda on Tuesday that the government’s refusal to engage in debate in the House of Representatives on Monday was reflective of their unwillingness to take women’s concerns seriously.
“The Prime Minister is totally disrespecting the bravery of Brittany Higgins who came forward with the shocking allegations of what happened in this building, and he is refusing to answer questions in the parliament, in the place that’s the centre of our democracy about what happened, and what he knew,” Thwaites said.
“If he can’t take these questions seriously in the heart of our democracy, I think what it says to women is that he is not taking your concerns seriously.
“The main reason that I’m in parliament and got myself elected is because parliament has the power to change lives for the better. We can only do that if we’ve got the place in order and that people believe we’ve got their best interests at heart.
“Everything Scott Morrison and this government are doing at the moment is the exact opposite of that.”
In light of revelations revealed by Chanel 10 and The Australian on Monday – that a male Coalition staffer had been sacked after allegedly performing a lewd sex act on the desk of a female Liberal MP – Thwaites said she entered the building this morning feeling shocked and angry.
“I was shocked and I was furious because these things don’t just happen. They happen because of a culture. I think everything we have been hearing about in this building over the past month has shown us there is culture of impunity in this place. There’s a culture where people think that disrespect and harm to women is ok, and in fact, in some corners of the building, it seems to be the norm,” she said.
“When I say there’s a culture of impunity, I think that comes from the very top and it comes from power imbalances and that’s what got to change. We’ve got to have the people with the power get real, and get serious.”
I feel so angry heading into work this morning. The building I got elected to because I want to change people’s lives for the better has instead broken too many. These things don’t just happen – the culture of impunity has been allowed from the top. 1/2— Kate Thwaites (@ThwaitesKate) March 22, 2021
Also this morning, Industry Minister Karen Andrews, one of the most senior women in the Morrison government, said she had had a “gutful”. She also called for the other Coalition staffers, who shared the alleged lewd video, to be sacked.
“I have had an absolute gutful of poor behaviour towards women and my conscience will no longer allow me to remain quiet,” she said. “Those people know who they are, so stop hiding, stand up, get out of the building. Time to go.”
“I actually think that if that behaviour has happened over a number of years that it should have been willing truly made public before now.”
Andrews, who has not spoken out about Brittany Higgin’s rape allegation, said she is now “open to a discussion” about quotas for women in the party, which she had previously been opposed to. In a press conference, Scott Morrison echoed a similar sentiment about the possibility of quotas.
Kate Thwaites said that the Liberal party desperately needs more women in parliament, and that this necessity actually comes down to safety.
“I’ve been thinking about the power of numbers. The way parliament works is that you’ve got to have the numbers,” she said.
“I feel safe at work because I know there are some strong and powerful women around me. When I look across the chamber, the Liberal party just does not have anywhere near the same numbers. I think that shows in the way women continually get left out of the decisions of this government.”