An inquiry into who in the Prime Minister’s Office had knowledge of the alleged sexual assault of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins in March 2019 has been put on hold as the ACT Magistrates Court prepares to hear legal proceedings on 16 September.
Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Phil Gaetjens was asked by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in February this year to undertake the inquiry, which also sought to discover when and how that knowledge was acquired.
But Mr Gaetjens issued a statement on Monday (30 August) saying that he had suspended the inquiry on legal advice.
Earlier this year, Ms Higgins alleged she was raped by a colleague at Parliament House in the office of federal government minister Linda Reynolds.
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The ACT Director of Public Prosecutions has charged a 26-year-old Queensland man. He is due to face court on 16 September.
Mr Gaetjens said that in late March 2021, Ms Higgins had indicated she wished to provide input to the inquiry.
But on 26 August it was reported that the ACT DPP Shane Drumgold considered that continuing the inquiry could prejudice the criminal proceedings now in progress.
“My Department separately confirmed those views with Mr Drumgold and I sought legal advice on the matter on the same day,” Mr Gaetjens said.
“On the basis of that legal advice received on 27 August 2021, I have suspended my inquiry until the conclusion of the criminal trial. This is to ensure that the inquiry can have no adverse impact on the criminal prosecution.”
Mr Gaetjens stressed that his decision was solely based on legal advice.
“The action I have taken is strictly in response to the legal advice I have received and does not relate to any of the content of the inquiry,” he said.
“No inferences in relation to that content can be drawn from the legal advice nor my decision to suspend the inquiry.”
Mr Gaetjen’s inquiry is one of a number to stem from Ms Higgins’ revelations.
Deputy Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Stephanie Foster looked at what support is available to political staffers and what processes are in place for dealing with complaints.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins is investigating workplace culture at Parliament House and is due to report in November.