Scott Morrison says it has “long” been his view that an adviser who is currently the subject of an apprehended violence order and allegations of inappropriate behaviour by young interns should not be employed by the former Liberal MP Craig Kelly.
The prime minister was pressed in parliament on Wednesday about his knowledge of the allegations against longtime Kelly staffer Frank Zumbo – and what actions he took in response.
Just days after the allegations against Zumbo were detailed by Guardian Australia, Kelly quit the Liberal party without first warning the prime minister of his intentions, and now sits on the crossbench, leaving the Morrison government with just a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives.
Kelly has told Guardian Australia Morrison spoke to him indirectly about issues in his office on 3 February during a private dressing down about his constant freelancing about unproven Covid-19 therapies.
The MP says one of Morrison’s senior political aides, Yaron Finkelstein, told him to stand down Zumbo last week after the prime minister’s office received detailed queries from Guardian Australia about various allegations against the adviser.
Kelly says he can’t recall a specific conversation with Morrison prior to the dressing down on 3 February where the prime minister was explicit about his desire that Zumbo be removed as his office manager. But he says he was aware that Morrison was “generally displeased with him”.
In response to questions from Labor in parliament, Morrison said on Wednesday it had “long been my view that Mr Zumbo shouldn’t be employed in the member for Hughes’ office”. The prime minister said Kelly had “known that”.
Morrison noted that his Sydney electorate of Cook was adjacent to Kelly’s seat in the Sutherland area and Kelly knew “that has been my view for many years based on our own conversations”.
Morrison also acknowledged that a reporter had contacted his office after a matter concerning Zumbo “had been raised and dealt with in the Sutherland local court on 8 July of last year”.
The reporter who contacted Morrison’s office, Eliza Barr, says she received no response from the prime minister’s office to her queries, which were emailed in August.
The proceedings were reported in the local St George Shire Standard in July and September 2020 and Guardian Australia understands they relate to claims that Zumbo kissed a 16- or 17-year-old intern on the neck.
Morrison said “this matter was raised [subsequently] by my office both informally and directly in relation to the employment of the person who is at the centre of this – Mr Frank Zumbo – with the member for Hughes”.
The timing of the interventions is unclear. Morrison did not specify whether his staff flagged Zumbo as a problem last year, after the questions from Barr, or whether he was referring to the discussion Kelly says he had with Finkelstein last week.
The questions about Zumbo come as Morrison remains under significant political pressure over whether the government provided an appropriate duty of care to another former member of the government’s staff, Brittany Higgins.
Higgins has alleged she was raped by a colleague while working for Linda Reynolds in early 2019. Reynolds, the defence minister, was admitted to a Canberra hospital on Wednesday after more than a week of intense scrutiny of her actions in the aftermath of the alleged rape.
Peter Dutton told parliament on Wednesday federal police had told him about the alleged rape of Higgins several days before Morrison says he was made aware of the incident.