Peter Dutton has backed a move to refer the confidential Commonwealth payout made to former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins to the new federal integrity watchdog for investigation.
The Opposition Leader told 2GB Radio on Thursday that Anthony Albanese and other senior figures in the federal government had questions to answer about the payout and what they knew about Ms Higgins’ rape allegation and when.
“It just seems that as each day goes by, there are more questions than there are answers and I think that’s creating a lot of suspicion understandably,” Mr Dutton said.
Ms Higgins reached a settlement with the Commonwealth in December last year after she launched legal action against her employers the former Coalition government over their handling of her rape allegation.
Mr Dutton said he thought the new National Anti-Corruption Commission, due to be operational next month, would have an interest in looking at the “sequence of events” that led to Ms Higgins’ payout.
“Because, if there is a question about the process involved in a payout or there is a question around the Prime Minister’s own words in relation to this … they’re very serious allegations,” he said.
Mr Dutton made the remarks after former Coalition minister Linda Reynolds said she might ask the NACC to investigate the government’s decision to award compensation to Ms Higgins, her former staffer.
Ms Higgins alleged she was raped in 2019 by her colleague Bruce Lehrmann inside Senator Reynolds’ ministerial office when they were both working for the former defence minister.
Mr Lehrmann has always denied Ms Higgins’ allegation and pleaded not guilty. He was not required to give evidence in his trial in the ACT Supreme Court last year that was derailed by juror misconduct before prosecutors later dropped the charges against him.
Fresh media reports of leaked text messages between Ms Higgins and her partner David Sharaz suggest the pair discussed strategizing with Finance Minister Katy Gallagher when she was a Labor frontbencher in opposition.
Senator Gallagher had previously said she didn’t know about the alleged sexual assault until the story broke.
In June 2021, she responded with outrage when she was asked in parliament whether she knew about Ms Higgins’ allegations before the former staffer came forward.
At the time, Senator Reynolds claimed she had been tipped off to Labor being aware of the allegation before it became public knowledge.
An indignant Senator Gallagher responded by saying: “No one had any knowledge. How dare you.”
Now finance minister, Senator Gallagher is responsible for the department that paid the confidential settlement to Ms Higgins.
Senator Gallagher told ABC Radio on Wednesday that she had “absolutely no role” in processing or paying out Ms Higgins’ compensation claim.
Asked about her relationship with Mr Sharaz, she said she had known him when he was a journalist in Canberra and she was the ACT chief minister.
“But I have nothing further to add. My statements are all on the record, and I’m comfortable with those,” she said.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus rejected suggestions the government had any questions to answer about the settlement paid to Ms Higgins that he said was “entirely in accordance” with the law.
“It’s very common for the Commonwealth to settle claims on the basis of agreed confidentiality,” he told Nine’s Today Show on Thursday.
“It’s very often in the Commonwealth’s interests that there be confidentiality and, often in the case of sexual harassment claims, there is a desire on the part of the claimant to keep the matter confidential.”
Mr Dreyfus said he was “absolutely” confident the government had nothing to hide.
Asked on ABC News Breakfast if the newly published text messages between Ms Higgins and Mr Sharaz raised any questions about the actions of then Labor frontbenchers that needed to be investigated, Mr Dreyfus said: “No. Just no.”
The amount of the Ms Higgins’ settlement was kept confidential, but it is reportedly estimated to be worth up to $3m. She reportedly donated a portion of her payout to the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre.
Later on Thursday, Mr Albanese brushed off questions about whether the process that led to Ms Higgins’ settlement could be investigated by the NACC by saying it was inappropriate for politicians to try to direct the actions of the integrity commission.
“It, in fact, could be regarded as an entirely inappropriate action by the prime minister or any other politician for that matter to try to direct the anti-corruption commission into what to do. We set it up as an independent body,” he said
“You’re asking me to do something that is entirely inappropriate because the anti-corruption commission is independent of politics. That’s the idea. If it’s in with politics, that itself is a problem.”
Mr Dreyfus said earlier on Thursday that anyone was welcome to refer matters to the NACC, which was on track to be up and running from July 1.
“It’ll be independent and a matter for the National Anti-Corruption Commission to decide what and how it will investigate,” he told Today.