Tasmanian Liberal MP Eric Abetz has categorically denied an allegation he made highly offensive comments about the former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.
In a statement made under parliamentary privilege, the speaker of the Tasmanian parliament, Sue Hickey, accused Abetz of “slut shaming” Higgins, who has alleged she was raped by a former colleague in Parliament House, Canberra, in 2019.
Hickey, who was a Liberal MP until Sunday, recounted what she said was a conversation with Abetz at the beginning of March in which she also asked him whether Christian Porter was the federal minister accused of a rape alleged to have occurred in 1988. The conversation is alleged to have taken place a few days before the attorney general publicly identified himself as the accused minister. Porter firmly denies the allegation.
Abetz is alleged to have replied to Hickey in the affirmative but added: “Not to worry, the woman is dead and the law will protect him [Porter].”
According to Hickey, Abetz then allegedly said: “As for that Higgins girl – anybody who is so disgustingly drunk, who would sleep with anybody, could have slept with one of our spies and put the security of our nation at risk.”
Hickey told the parliament: “I say to the senator on this matter: Ms Higgins did not choose to sleep with this man, she was raped.”
The alleged sexual assault of Higgins in March 2019 is the subject of a criminal investigation. No charges have been laid.
Abetz, the veteran Tasmanian Liberal senator, was chairing a Senate estimates committee in Canberra when Hickey’s statement about the conversation was reported. He made a statement in the committee categorically denying Hickey’s version of the conversation.
Abetz noted on Wednesday he had helped set up a women’s shelter before he entered parliament “and to suggest that I would make light of a rape allegation is horrendous [and] categorically denied by myself”.
Abetz then suggested Hickey’s statement was politically motivated. “On Sunday, the premier informed her she was no longer welcome or wanted in the Liberal party, and one can imagine what has occasioned these outbursts by her.”
Hickey has had a fractious relationship with the Liberal party dating back to her election to parliament in 2018, and the tensions culminated this week when the premier, Peter Gutwein, told her she would not be re-endorsed as a Liberal candidate for the state election due next year.
Hickey later rejected Abetz’s denial and doubled down on her statement, telling state parliament she had “witnesses” who could give evidence that she told them about the conversation with Abetz “immediately afterwards” – meaning at the event on 1 March.
“Since that date, I have also discussed it with others, including senior members of the party in both the political and administrative wing a couple of weeks ago, well prior to my removal from preselection discussions,” she said.
Hickey said she had disclosed the conversation on Wednesday after seeing Monday night’s episode of Four Corners. She said the intervention reflected her concern that security guards weren’t able to intervene on the night Higgins is alleged to have been raped by a colleague. “I felt compelled to call it out,” she said.
Hickey insisted she had a “clear and concise” memory of the conversation with Abetz. “I call on him to be honest,” she said.
During question time in the House of Representatives, Scott Morrison was asked about the conversation. The prime minister pointed to the categorical denial from Abetz.
Morrison said the comments attributed to Abetz were “completely and utterly repugnant” but “what I can only refer to is the absolute denial of those statements by senator Abetz”.
After Abetz denied Hickey’s account in Senate estimates, the minister at the table, Marise Payne, the women’s minister, said she would not add to Abetz’s statement. Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, also in the committee, invited Payne to make it clear the comments attributed to Abetz were not the view of the government.
Payne responded: “The assertions made by the speaker of the Tasmanian parliament do not constitute in any way, shape or form the view of the government”.
Wong said she would leave Abetz to respond to the allegation, but added: “I think we, across the parliament, whenever confronted with the sorts of views, whether they’re accurately reported or not, should be reasserting that every woman has a right to be safe, and victims are not to be blamed for the assaults which are perpetrated on them.”
Abetz replied: “I have no issue with that at all, Senator Wong, and as somebody who devoted a fair bit of his professional time on a voluntary basis to assist victims, I can assure you that that which has been asserted by the speaker is categorically and utterly rejected by me.”
The fresh controversy comes as the government this week was forced to sack an adviser after footage emerged reportedly of a Liberal staffer allegedly masturbating on the desk of a female parliamentarian, and Morrison had to backtrack on a public statement that News Corp was battling a workplace harassment claim.
On Wednesday morning, Morrison told Sydney radio station 2GB he intended to “take responsibility for dealing with things in this House here, and I will, but we also have to take actions – all of us – to make sure women both are safe and feel safe”.
Of his month of missteps, the prime minister said: “You know, blokes don’t get it right all the time, we all know that, and that what matters is that we’re desperately trying to and that’s what I’m trying to do.
“And we will get this right, and we need to focus on that.”
• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. International helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org.