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'They must have known' - Morrison facing scrutiny over knowledge of alleged rape

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison is under intense scrutiny over what he knew about an alleged rape inside Parliament House.

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Brittany Higgins alleges she was sexually assaulted by a male colleague in a ministerial office in 2019.

Morrison says his office only found out about the allegations last week and he was not aware until Monday.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said he found the timeline “incredible” and “very, very, very hard to believe” that senior advisers in the Prime Minister’s office would not have been aware of the nature of the incident.

“I find it inconceivable that wasn’t well known to at least key members of the prime minister’s staff,” he told the ABC on Wednesday.

“If it wasn’t, there was clearly an absolutely baffling breakdown in communications.”

“It just strains credulity.”

The Prime Minister’s account is at odds with Higgins, who says at least two of his staff were involved in handling the complaint, including one senior aide who checked in with her several months ago.

Morrison has rebuked Defence Minister Linda Reynolds for failing to tell him about the complaint, but denies his government has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards sexual assault.

“I am not happy about the fact it was not brought to my attention and I can assure you people know that,” he said.

Senator Reynolds, who has known about the alleged rape for nearly two years, offered an unreserved apology to Higgins for her handling of the complaint.

In particular, Reynolds said she deeply regretted calling a meeting with Higgins in the place of the alleged attack.

Labor frontbencher Katy Gallagher told parliament the minister was “wilfully negligent” as an employer and needed to take responsibility.

The assault allegation has sparked calls for an independent complaints body to be established in Parliament House.

Crossbench MPs including Helen Haines, Zali Steggall and Rebekha Sharkie, describing themselves as mature women of parliament, say the complaints body needs to exist outside the Department of Finance, which currently handles such matters.

“I don’t think sitting within Department of Finance with a minister still of the government of the day is really going to provide that level of confidence,” Sharkie said.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has backed their calls.

“We need an arm’s length, independent body that is able to investigate and provide support to anyone in this building who has an issue with their safety,” he told reporters.

He said an internal government or Liberal Party review would not be enough.

The prime minister has established two inquiries and also agreed to Labor’s call for an independent review into workplace culture inside Parliament House.

Turnbull said driving cultural change will require strong leadership.

“There should be an absolutely rigorous, independent review,” he said.

“The ministers and prime ministers have to lead by example. People who disrespect their colleagues and people who disrespect women, let alone assault them, have to be dealt with the full rigour of the law.”

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