Brittany Higgins
Former staffer Brittany Higgins interviewed on The Project (Image: Channel 10)

If Goebbels was right and the “big lie” is the pathway to domination for authoritarian governments, then it is the small lie that is likely to bring them down. The story of the “security breach” in the Brittany Higgins case is one such lie.

Brittany Higgins was allegedly raped in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ office on the night of March 22, 2019. She went public with her story on February 15, 2021 — the same day that Scott Morrison has maintained he first learned anything about it.

On February 16, Reynolds fronted Senate estimates and stated that the alleged rapist, a staffer in her office like Higgins, “was terminated shortly after this incident occurred [in fact, the following day] and it was for a security breach”.

Higgins says she witnessed the male staffer packing his stuff and leaving, before she was called in to see Reynolds’ chief of staff. She was not sacked or, apparently, disciplined at all for any security breach.

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The “security breach” narrative hung around for a month, largely unexamined while everyone focused on who knew what about the alleged rape, when they knew it, what they failed to do about it, and how it was that Morrison only found out almost two full years after the parliamentary cleaners.

On March 22, ABC’s Four Corners put up a new whistleblower: Nikola Anderson, a Parliament House security guard who had let Higgins and the man into the building and escorted them to Reynolds’ office, later finding her naked and semi-conscious hours after the man had left.

Anderson was categorical: there was no security breach on the night. Both staffers had standing authority to gain access to the minister’s office at any hour, and it was not security’s job to question or second-guess their reasons. The fact that Higgins was visibly intoxicated did not change that, no doubt a reflection on the frequency with which parliamentary security encounters staffers and others in similar states.

The following morning, the government’s go-to good guy Simon Birmingham was sent out for the first attempt at narrative shift.

“Higher security protocols apply to ministerial offices, particularly those dealing with sensitive issues,” he said. “Going in for non-work purposes when intoxicated out of hours constitutes absolutely a security breach”. He confirmed this was why the male staffer was sacked.

Either Birmo hadn’t read the whole memo or the brains trust had only half-written it, because Higgins was also clearly intoxicated and there for non-work purposes. It begged a very obvious question.

That brought Morrison himself out of hiding, with version number three. Now there was a second security breach “involving mishandling of classified documents”, three days before the alleged rape, by the same male staffer.

“So in other words”, Morrison explained, “he had some form when it came to the security issues regarding that office and this [the late-night entry] was the final straw.”

Birmingham, back on script, told Senate estimates later that day that the staffer had already had a “strike” against him, but couldn’t confirm when this had come to light or what the recorded justification for the sacking was.

The next day the associate secretary of the Defence Department, Katherine Jones, put some flesh on the bones of the earlier security breach: it involved confidential documents left unsecured. Not good, but not quite a firing offence you’d think.

Jones also confirmed that Defence had never been informed of the supposed security breach on the night of the 22nd. To underline the point, when asked if the access to the minister’s office that night constituted a “security breach”, Jones responded “from the perspective of Defence, no”.

Clean-up duty now passed to acting Defence Minister Marise Payne, under the full glare of a Penny Wong cross-examination. Wong was forensic, although a primary schooler could have joined these dots.

Wong: On what basis was this a security breach?

Payne: I’ll have to take that on notice.

Wong: What was the misconduct for which he was sacked?

Payne: I’ve sought advice about what I can put on the public record because there may be an association with the subject matter of the police investigation [into the alleged rape].

Wong: But the government’s story is that it didn’t know about the alleged rape when it sacked the guy, and you did it for another reason. So you can’t now say that the sacking is connected to the police investigation. You can’t have it both ways.

Payne: [inaudible]

OK the last bit is a joke. Not that it matters what Payne did or will say.

We are left with three glaring inconsistencies: the apparent absence of any actual security breach by the alleged rapist warranting his dismissal; the fact that if he was sacked over his late-night office entry, Higgins should have been too; and, most significantly, if the government didn’t know about the alleged rape at all, why the precipitous rush to execute him over a minor document breach and a late-night entry during which nothing (as far as the government then knew) occurred?

The trail of lies and obfuscations leads, as always, all the way to the prime ministerial door.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636.