Damaging trail continues with no end in sight

There are no winners in the Brittany Higgins-Bruce Lehrmann saga, writes Michelle Grattan.

A Federal Court judge says Brittany Higgins was raped by Bruce Lehrmann: AAP/Mick Tsikas. Bruce Lehrmann photo: AAP/Dean Lewins

A Federal Court judge says Brittany Higgins was raped by Bruce Lehrmann: AAP/Mick Tsikas. Bruce Lehrmann photo: AAP/Dean Lewins

The Brittany Higgins saga has damaged almost everyone it has touched, or who’s touched it.

It will forever haunt Higgins, who alleged she was raped in 2019 in a minister’s office, and Bruce Lehrmann, who denied committing the alleged assault. An aborted trial has meant there is no legal judgement.

It helped destroy Scott Morrison. It deeply scarred Linda Reynolds, the minister in question, and had an impact on Fiona Brown, Reynolds’ staffer at the time who dealt with the matter.

In fresh rounds of this story that never goes away, more people are being dragged down, to greater or lesser degrees: the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions, police, some in the media. Now, Finance Minister Katy Gallagher is in the political frame.

After The Australian’s recent publication of texts between Higgins and her partner David Sharaz, exchanged in the run-up to the airing of Higgins’ 2021 interview with Ten’s Lisa Wilkinson, Gallagher faces allegations of misleading parliament.

In a testy exchange with Reynolds at a Senate estimates committee in 2021, Gallagher insisted she’d had no knowledge before the story broke.

Reynolds had claimed she’d been told by a Labor senator (who was the late Kimberley Kitching) “two weeks before about what you were intending to do with the story in my office”.

At the hearing Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong immediately declared she’d had no knowledge, while Gallagher said categorically, “No one had any knowledge,” adding angrily, “how dare you!”

Reynolds subsequently said Gallagher and Wong later that day told her they’d had some prior indication but had nothing to do with the matter going public.

In the text exchange Sharaz, anxious to ensure the story would become an issue politically, flagged he’d shared information with Gallagher, whom he knew. He believed she would be useful in pursuing the matter when the Wilkinson interview was broadcast.

Gallagher at the weekend admitted she was told “there was going to be some public reporting that a young woman [was] making serious allegations about events that had occurred in a minister’s office”. Wong also qualified her position, saying she didn’t know “full details of the allegations before the story became public”.

The opposition is calling for Gallagher’s resignation or sacking, but that won’t be happening.

While her statement to the committee was misleading, Gallagher was not a minister. Indeed, even ministers do not fall on their sword these days for what was once considered the serious sin of misleading parliament. (In the 1980s, Hawke government minister John Brown did so, in the wake of an answer he gave to an opposition question.)

Precisely what Labor knew before the story broke remains unclear, as does precisely who in Labor knew about it. The Kitching leak indicated the senior Labor women in the Senate were aware – did they pass anything on?

But there was nothing improper about Gallagher receiving information – oppositions get alerts all the time. The issue was her denial at the Senate committee.

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Labor will stare down the opposition’s attacks. It can counter by saying returning to the issue brings fresh trauma for Higgins, and the private text messages should never have been leaked (where they came from is unknown).

If it chooses, Labor can raise Brown’s weekend claims that, when the heat was on her over her handling of the Higgins matter, she received little support from Scott Morrison and his office (to which she’d returned by the time the story broke). Her weekend interview with The Australian carried the implication Morrison may have misled parliament when he told the House of Representatives he’d spoken with her about the matter (Brown said he hadn’t).

There’s unlikely to be much mileage for the opposition in the pursuit of Gallagher – although that’s not to say she doesn’t have questions to answer.

As Anthony Albanese has pointed out, the issue was about the former government, not the then opposition. For the Liberals to revisit it is to hark back to the Morrison days – bad territory for the Coalition.

Moreover, people have entrenched views about the Higgins matter and few opinions will shift.

Anyway, the public are now preoccupied with a range of bread-and-butter issues. They’re unlikely to focus on, or care about, the ins-and-outs of who in Labor knew what when.

But Reynolds cares a lot. All along she felt wrongly targeted, believing she behaved properly. Most recently, she was angered when not allowed into the mediation that saw Higgins receive a large sum of Commonwealth money. She wanted to mount her defence against the claims made about her and her office.

Reynolds intends to refer this payout to the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which commences operating on July 1.

Regardless of that, in the name of transparency, the government should provide the details of the payment.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot still to come in this story, even apart from what happens in defamation actions Lehrmann has launched. On the basis of the evidence we heard, the ACT inquiry into the conduct of criminal justice agencies in the case could be set to deliver a hefty load of brickbats in its report, due at the end of next month.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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