Brittany Higgins makes formal complaint to PM's chief of staff over alleged backgrounding

Exclusive: victim of alleged rape in Parliament House has asked John Kunkel to examine whether staff have backgrounded against her

Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins has made a formal complaint to the prime minister’s chief of staff, John Kunkel, asking him to examine whether government staff have backgrounded against her or her loved ones.

Higgins wrote to Kunkel after Scott Morrison said in an interview with the ABC on Thursday morning that no one from the parliamentary press gallery had “raised that” – meaning any negative backgrounding by his office – with his chief of staff.

Morrison has been asked more than 10 times in the parliament whether or not he has investigated allegations of negative backgrounding by his staff raised first publicly by the Network Ten journalist Peter Van Onselen in February.

Morrison said in response to the persistent questioning: “I’ve no knowledge of that and I would never instruct that. I would never instruct such a thing.” Asked whether he has made specific inquiries with his staff to satisfy himself of the facts, Morrison has referred to his previous answer.

Higgins at the time made a public plea for any unofficial backgrounding to stop, saying that sort of conduct “speaks to the systematic problems” of the parliament. Backgrounding is a journalistic practice where sources supply material that can be asserted as fact but not attributed to them.

The prime minister was asked again on Thursday morning by the ABC whether he could say categorically that his office hadn’t been backgrounding “against one of her loved ones”.

Morrison replied: “No one in the [parliamentary press] gallery, nothing has been raised with my office from anyone in the gallery making any of those accusations or any discomfort about anything that my office has done.

“People make allegations all the time second, third-hand. But there’s no one who has raised that with my chief of staff out of the gallery, no.”

Shortly after Morrison’s comment, Higgins wrote to Kunkel to make a formal complaint. “In the days following my interview with The Project regarding my experience in Parliament House, I was made aware by numerous journalists about the backgrounding that was happening against my partner,” the complaint says.

Higgins says “to my knowledge, this was being done by staff within the prime minister’s media team”. She says the alleged backgrounding was reported to her personally by journalists at three news outlets.

“I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt,” Higgins says in the complaint to Kunkel. “It is entirely plausible the prime minister did not know that this was happening, however the more relevant point is that it did occur.”

Guardian Australia has not been a recipient of negative backgrounding about Higgins or her loved ones by the prime minister’s office.

Higgins has also raised concerns that the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has not spoken to her as part of inquiries he is making about contact between members of Morrison’s staff and herself before February 2020.

Morrison asked Phil Gaetjens to check communications between his staff and Higgins after conflicting accounts emerged about whether or not prime ministerial staff had knowledge of the allegation of sexual assault she went public with in February 2021.

Morrison has said he became aware of Higgins’ allegation on February 15 and his staff became aware on 12 February.

Higgins tells Kunkel in her formal complaint that it is her “express desire to present my evidence to Mr Gaetjens at the appropriate time once the review recommences”.

Gaetjens advised a Senate estimates committee this week his inquiry had been put on hold in the second week of March because of advice from police that it might complicate a criminal investigation into Higgins’ allegation of rape.

But he also confirmed he had not yet spoken to Higgins, allowing her to nominate any instances of communication with members of Morrison’s staff.

Morrison failed to advise the parliament that the Gaetjens probe had been put on hold when asked by Labor for an update. Gaetjens made it clear he had told the prime minister and his office about the suspension of the inquiry shortly after he made that decision.

Labor accused Morrison of misleading the parliament. Morrison denied that was the case.


Katharine Murphy Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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