Political insiders are wondering why Brittany Higgins is allowed to keep her generous taxpayer-funded payout — which could be worth up to $3 million — despite the dropping of charges against her accused rapist Bruce Lehrmann.
Whenever the Brittany Higgins case is brought up by 2GB breakfast show host Ben Fordham, callers always wonder if she should keep the money and ask to know why there is no explanation for her secret settlement.
Both the Labor government and the opposition refuse to be publicly involved in questions about the payout, citing the ongoing investigation by retired judge Walter Sofronoff into the DPP’s investigation and prosecution of Lehrmann.
But discussions about payment will not disappear.
Ms Higgins has launched a civil suit against her employers, former Liberal ministers Linda Reynolds and Michaelia Cash and the Commonwealth, over the handling of her sexual assault allegations during her time as a parliamentary staff member.
After a one-day mediation in December 2022 – after her criminal case against Bruce Lehrmann crumbled – Ms Higgins walked away with an undisclosed sum, which could be as high as $3 million.
Ms Higgins angrily claims the actual payout is significantly less, but has declined to confirm by exactly how much.
Ms Higgins has launched a civil suit against her employers over the handling of her sexual assault allegations during her time as a parliamentary assistant
When Mr Ashby – now Pauline Hanson’s chief of staff – applied to the finance department to cover legal bills he had accumulated, the case was rejected.
While ordinary Australians question the payout, Canberra insiders will only speak off-the-record and point to another case involving James Ashby, who worked as media consultant to Peter Slipper from December 2011 to October 2012.
Mr Ashby accused the then Chairman of the Labor Government, Peter Slipper, of sexual harassment and misappropriation of expenses, but ended up with a $4.5 million in legal debts.
‘In [Ms Higgins’] case, they supported the prosecution. But in [Mr Ashby’s] case, they financed [the accused],’ said one.
When Mr Ashby – now Pauline Hanson’s chief of staff – applied to the finance department to cover legal bills he was accumulating.
In 2012, Mr. Ashby claimed he had been harassed by Mr. Slipper when he was working as a staffer in his office. The allegations consisted of hundreds of inappropriate text messages and unwanted sexual advances.
Over the next two years, the pair became embroiled in legal battles that resulted in the case being dropped.
Gary Gray, Labour’s acting special secretary of state, took the extraordinary step of announcing the Commonwealth’s intention to cover all of Mr Slipper’s legal costs to fight the allegations.
Ms. Higgins worked in the offices of both Linda Reynolds and Michaelia Cash
“We must be wary of an increasingly litigious society where politically motivated lawsuits have the potential to improperly influence the work of MPs and Senators and the House of Representatives.
“I recognize that it is unusual for a minister to make specific comments about pardon payments because of the need to protect the privacy of individuals.”
Mr Ashby later appealed to the Treasury Department to cover his legal costs.
In 2022, this request was rejected.
“Labour’s response couldn’t be further apart for the two,” said an insider.
Not a single question has been asked from a Member of Parliament about Mrs Higgins’ payment.
But several commentators and senior parliamentary sources have called on the government to be more transparent.
In February, 2GB’s Ben Fordham said: “The government needs to reveal why they paid the compensation claim and they need to tell us how much money was paid,” he said on broadcast.
“Ultimately, people want to know how much has been handed over. Crucially, we are talking about a case in which the allegations were firmly denied and we know that the lawsuit eventually fell apart.”
In February, 2GB’s Ben Fordham said: ‘The government needs to reveal why they handled the compensation claim and they need to tell us how much money was paid,’ he said during a broadcast.
And influential Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt also asked in February, “Why did the Albanian government still give Higgins $3 million for an unproven rape and unproven brutality of the Morrison administration?”
At the hearing, Ms. Higgins’ boss, Linda Reynolds, was told she was not allowed to attend the hearing or provide any evidence.
She claimed she was told the government would come back on an insurance policy to pay her legal fees if she attended the hearing.
Andrew Bolt said in a column for the Herald Sun, “Why did the Albanian government still give Higgins $3 million for an unproven rape and unproven brutality of the Morrison government?”
The mediation and settlement was in response to a civil claim and did not represent any finding in the criminal case, which had already been halted after the lengthy trial ended in juror misconduct.
Chris Merritt, vice president of the Rule of Law Institute and legal affairs officer for The Australian, said: “It is difficult to see how the Higgins settlement complies with longstanding rules governing how the federal government is supposed to deal with monetary claims.
“It’s also hard to see how those responsible for this settlement couldn’t understand that spending taxpayers’ money in violation of those rules could arouse the interest of regulators, including the National Anti-Corruption Commission.”
Mr. Merritt argued that there were only two ways for Mrs. Higgins to get a payout of more than $100,000.
First, a legal professional would have to state that the settlement reflected the claim as having a “meaningful prospect of success in a court of law.”
The Acting Special Secretary of State for Labor at the time took the extraordinary step of announcing the Commonwealth’s intention to cover all of Mr Slipper’s legal costs to fight the allegations
Alternatively, the Attorney General could step in to rule that customary precedent should not apply in this case, as it would be an “exceptional circumstance.”
It is not clear which route the mediation has taken.
The former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has been repeatedly criticized for apologizing to Ms Higgins on the floor of Parliament.
‘I’m sorry. We are sorry,” Mr Morrison told Parliament. “I’m sorry Mrs. Higgins for the terrible things that have happened here. And the place that should have been a place of safety and contribution turned out to be a nightmare.
“But I’m sorry for much more than that, for all those who came before Mrs. Higgins and endured the same thing.”
Mr Morrison was later forced to clarify that his apology had nothing to do with the criminal charges in court following backlash from the accused’s lawyer.
The apology was described as worrying and hypocritical as so many complainants had not received similar treatment before Ms Higgins.
Bruce Lehrmann has always maintained his innocence and all charges were dropped
The former coalition government, led by Scott Morrison, has been criticized repeatedly over the years; most urgently for Mr Morrison’s apology to Mrs Higgins on the floor of Parliament
Such payouts are rarely made public.
Former press secretary Rachelle Miller, who dated liberal frontbencher Alan Tudge, reportedly received a six-figure payout from the taxpayer following an investigation into abuse allegations.
Ms Miller claimed he had emotionally and in one instance physically abused her during the couple’s consensual affair – allegations Mr Tudge emphatically denied.
Although he was cleared of breaching ministerial guidelines, Mr Morrison’s government settled a payout and reimbursement of legal fees on the case.