By: Paul Karp
Scott Morrison has controversially claimed his chief of staff had found his office did not brief against Brittany Higgins’ partner in the weeks after she publicly alleged she was raped in Parliament House.
In a report, tabled in parliament on Tuesday, John Kunkel declined to make a finding that the prime minister’s office did brief against David Sharaz, citing a lack of first-hand evidence and the seriousness of the allegation.
But as Labor senator Penny Wong noted, Kunkel did not “find that the backgrounding didn’t happen – he just didn’t find that it did”.
“It doesn’t exonerate anybody – he didn’t make a finding it didn’t occur,” Wong told Senate estimates.
Kunkel concluded he was “not in a position to make a finding that the alleged activity took place” but warned “the fact those allegations have been made serves as an important reminder of the need for [the prime minister’s] staff to hold themselves to the highest standards”.
The Morrison government has been under pressure over its handling of sexual harassment and assault complaints since Higgins went public in February with her accusation that a fellow Liberal staffer raped her in March 2019.
The mishandling of the allegation was compounded when journalists claimed the prime minister’s office had briefed against Sharaz, Higgin’s partner, which she described as a “gross” attempt to silence her – if true.
Asked in question time whether his office had sought “to undermine Brittany Higgins’ loved ones”, Morrison replied: “My chief of staff found in the negative and I table the report.”
Despite that bullish characterisation of the report, Kunkel was much more circumspect in his conclusions regarding what could be known about “serious allegations that go to the professionalism and integrity of the PMO media team”.
Higgins’ statement to Kunkel, seen by Guardian Australia, explained the backgrounding was “reported to me personally by various sources at news.com.au, the Daily Telegraph and Channel 10”, as well as referred to by Peter Van Onselen on ABC radio and by Guardian Australia.
Higgins said she had identified “three individuals from the prime minister’s press office who were purportedly involved” in the backgrounding. Labor senator Katy Gallagher publicly named them in Senate estimates on Tuesday.
Kunkel’s report said Higgins declined to name journalists. His report included secondhand accounts from three unnamed journalists but Kunkel said “no member of the press gallery” interviewed “was in a position to substantiate first-hand experience of such activity by the PMO media team”.
One journalist with direct knowledge came forward on 25 March, but Kunkel said that person later “did not wish to be identified, did not wish to make a complaint, and did not wish to participate in this process”.
“All senior members of the media team rejected the allegation of backgrounding with the purpose of undermining the reputation of Mr Sharaz,” the report said.
Although all “senior” members were interviewed, in Senate estimates the finance minister, Simon Birmingham, was unable to confirm if all members of the PM’s media team gave a statement.
Kunkel said given the seriousness of the allegation, it was important to make findings “only where the evidence for them is clear and direct”.
Kunkel concluded the first-hand evidence established that “members of the PMO media team participated in” discussions which included “the distressing allegation of Ms Higgins’ sexual assault, the awareness (or lack thereof) of the incident on the part of PMO staff, and the personal circumstances of Ms Higgins and her partner”.
“On first-hand evidence before me, however, and bearing in mind the seriousness of the allegation that you have asked me to investigate, I do not make a finding that negative briefing against Mr Sharaz of the sort alleged has taken place.”
“In the context of my inquiry, such a finding would be based upon hearsay (in some instances, second or third-hand). The evidence before me falls well short of the standard that would be needed to arrive at such a finding in conformity with due process.”
Nevertheless, Kunkel said that Higgins’ beliefs were “sincerely held” and his findings “should in no way be taken as a reflection upon the honesty or sincerity of Ms Higgins”.
Birmingham, when responding to Wong’s statement, said Kunkel was not able to corroborate or substantiate the claims of backgrounding and in that sense it was a negative finding.
Earlier, Gallagher told estimates it was a “sorry state of affairs” because it appeared the onus was on Higgins to out journalists who spoke to her.
“If Kunkel says there is no way to verify this, we know what the stitch-up has been, really, from the start,” she said.
On Tuesday, the Australian federal police commissioner, Reece Kershaw, revealed 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 a further 19 allegations of misconduct involving parliamentarians, their staff or “official establishments” had been reported to police since the former Liberal staffer went public.