‘Cover up’: Stunning Brittany Higgins claim
The political probe into who knew what and when about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins has been sensationally suspended on the grounds it could interfere with the police investigation.
Just weeks after the Prime Minister ordered an inquiry into who knew in his office about the claims, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens has revealed he secretly paused the probe on March 9.
But despite questions in Parliament about the probe last week, the Prime Minister never revealed the inquiry had been paused or delayed on the basis of AFP advice.
"On the 9th of March, because of the Commissioner's advice I emailed the Prime Minister's office staff to tell them I would not be completing the documentation,'' Mr Gaetjens told the Senate.
"I believe from what he has said...that I am at risk of compromising an investigation and I am not willing to do that. This is for the benefit of Ms Higgins."
The claim it was for Ms Higgins prompted fury from Labor senators.
"Do not use her interests as a shield, Mr Gaetjens,'' Labor Senator Penny Wong said.
His evidence has also raised immediate serious questions over the Prime Minister's statement to Parliament that he was not aware of where the investigation was at and this was a matter for Mr Gaetjens.
Mr Gaetjens refused to answer any questions about who - if anyone - he interviewed before he suspended his investigation.
Earlier on Monday, Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw warned the Prime Minister's probe into who knew what and when on the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins could interfere with the police investigation raising the prospect the political probe could be suspended.
In bombshell evidence to the Senate's Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Commissioner Kershaw said he was concerned that any political investigation could contaminate the police inquiry.
His warning could also provide political cover for the Prime Minister to suspend the probe, prompting Labor to warn of "a cover up" in Senate estimates.
The Prime Minister has asked Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens, his former chief of staff, to investigate who in the prime minister's office knew about the allegation and when to ascertain whether the PM's claim that nobody in his office knew about the rape claim was accurate.
Mr Kershaw warned anyone linked to the sexual assault investigation that the criminal investigation must run its course.
"I also spoke with Mr (Phil) Gaetjens, secretary of the department of prime minister and cabinet, that I'm particularly concerned about the intersection of his inquiry with our investigation," Commissioner Kershaw told a Senate estimates
"I will be limited in what I can say to ensure the active criminal investigation is not compromised," he said.
"It is being treated with due care and attention including with oversight by our sensitive investigations oversight board.
"It's not helpful at all and it's also quite a risky undertaking,'' he said about the parliament probe.
"For example, even matters reported in the media can affect a fair outcome."
Ms Higgins has alleged she was raped in March 2019, by another Liberal staffer and that in the aftermath several senior advisers in the Prime Minister's office and scores of people in ministerial offices, the Australian Federal Police and parliamentary services and security were aware of "an incident" but failed to provide her adequate support.
News.com.au has previously reported that despite the PM's claim nobody knew, a senior staffer had discussions with a friend of Ms Higgins and that he texted her in 2019 to confirm the discussion had taken place.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds' former chief of staff also now works for Mr Morrison and his chief of staff John Kunkel and another man were involved in handling the aftermath of 'an incident' in the office but both insisted they never knew it involved an alleged rape.
The question of who knew what and when will be probed tonight by the ABC's Four Corners in a special investigation into whether the PM's claim that his office didn't know about the alleged rape is accurate.
Labor Senator Kristina Keneally asked Commissioner Kershaw whether or not his letter to the Prime Minister was establishing a de facto mandatory reporting policy for rape and he said this was definitely not his intent.
"It's not a mandatory report. It may be that the victim does not want any action taken criminally. It is a victim centred approach,'' he said.
But Senate President Scott Ryan was then involved in fiery clashes over his refusal to answer questions on the ground that it may interfere with the police probe.
"I put it to you that is completely without precedent,'' Labor's Senate leader Penny Wong said.
But Senator Ryan continued to refuse to answer any questions indicating he would take the questions on notice and seek advice from police and the Presiding officers.
"I do not want to inadvertently overstep the mark and complicate an investigation by answering questions in a public forum,'' Senator Scott Ryan said.
"I will take advice and come back,'' Senator Ryan said.
Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching said it was clear enough what his refusal to reveal how Parliament handled the alleged rape in the aftermath looked like to voters.
"You know how it looks? It looks like there's a cover up going on,'' she said.
Originally published as 'Cover up': Stunning Brittany claim