Scott Morrison has indicated that he has reprimanded his staff for not bringing a former government staffer’s rape allegations to his attention as soon as a reporter submitted questions earlier this month.
The prime minister has also taken umbrage at a major business group’s comments about a pervasive “culture of disrespect” in politics, with Morrison responding that “if any workplace thinks that this is just confined to the parliament, they’re kidding themselves”.
Speaking on Sunday, on the eve of the resumption of parliament, Morrison continued to face questions about the government’s handling of allegations that former staffer Brittany Higgins was raped by a more senior colleague in the office of then defence industry minister Linda Reynolds in 2019.
Morrison stood by his statement that he only became aware of those allegations when a story was published by news.com.au on Monday morning last week, but made clear that he had “expressed my view to my staff” about the delay in informing him.
The author of the story, Samantha Maiden, said she had approached the government for comment on the allegations at 2.30pm on Friday 12 February, and the government “spent the entire weekend, for which we’re very grateful, seeking facts and information” for the article.
“And yet nobody told the prime minister, and his evidence is that he didn’t know about this story until we published it at 8am last Monday,” Maiden told the ABC’s Insiders program.
Morrison was asked on Sunday whether people should believe that his office did not inform him for more than 48 hours. “Correct – that’s what happened,” he replied.
Pressed on why his staff had not informed him, Morrison said: “I expressed my view to my staff about that very candidly on Monday.”
A reporter then asked Morrison whether his staff were being reprimanded for not bringing such a serious allegation to the prime minister’s attention.
“You can be assured they know exactly my views about that matter,” Morrison replied.
“But you know, it’s not about how I feel. It is always about the person who is at the centre of this.”
The issue dominated parliament last week, culminating in Higgins’ announcement on Friday that she was re-engaging with the Australian federal police and would proceed with a formal complaint about her alleged rape in Parliament House.
Higgins has also called for a “truly independent investigation” and widespread reform to the way staffers are treated.
Morrison has maintained that his office was first made aware of the alleged rape of Higgins on 12 February this year, the day the media inquiry was submitted.
But on Tuesday, Morrison publicly rebuked Reynolds, now the defence minister, for failing to tell him about the matter at the time. Reynolds offered Higgins an unqualified apology for how the March 2019 incident was handled.
The chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, said on Sunday “it would be really unfortunate if this all just becomes about political scalp-getting” rather than ensuring “this young, courageous woman is supported”.
Speaking to Sky News, Westacott said a culture of disrespect to women was a society-wide problem, and “we see still way too many allegations of sexual harassment in the corporate sector, we see horrific domestic violence figures”.
But Westacott also suggested that there was a particular cultural problem in Parliament House.
“I think anyone who observes parliament, observes a culture of disrespect. I’m not saying in every case, but a pervasive culture of discourtesy, of disrespect, of getting somebody as opposed to getting something done,” Westacott said, while also raising concerns about bullying.
“That culture is a cancer that gives rise to these very serious events that happen in this place. Frankly, it wouldn’t be tolerated in a good workplace and shouldn’t be. But this is not just about this place. We’ve got to get on top of the disrespect that people have for women and that starts with how young people are educated.”
When asked about those comments on Sunday, Morrison said the culture needed to change “but I’ve got to say, if any workplace thinks that this is just confined to the parliament, they’re kidding themselves – seriously, they’re kidding themselves”.
“We’ve got our issues to deal with as a parliament, and we’re saying we do,” Morrison said.
“All I’m simply saying is we need to deal with what’s happening in our house and everybody needs to deal with what is happening in theirs.”
Morrison said he hoped the reviews he had ordered over the past week would lead to an improvement of the culture at Parliament House, and “provide greater support to anyone who would find themselves a victim of those types of events in the future”.
“It is a fairly straightforward expectation: I want the culture to be better; I want the system to be better.”
Morrison said the finance minister, Simon Birmingham, was working with other party leaders on a multiparty parliamentary process “and we hope to make further announcements there”.
Morrison said on Saturday he was “very upset” at reports a second woman was sexually assaulted by the same man who allegedly raped Higgins.
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, said on Saturday he was “shocked” by the new allegations. Albanese also accused the government of treating Higgins’ alleged assault as a “political problem” rather than a criminal offence and appointing Morrison’s former chief of staff to lead one of the reviews.
• If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au