MARK RILEY: Brittany Higgins rape cover-up claim was political TNT for Morrison government. But it wasn’t true

Headshot of Mark Riley
Mark Riley
The Nightly
4 Min Read
The claims of a government cover-up by Brittany Higgins have been found by a civil court to have no substance, writes Mark Riley.
The claims of a government cover-up by Brittany Higgins have been found by a civil court to have no substance, writes Mark Riley. Credit: The Nightly

The March 4 Justice outside Parliament House in Canberra in March 2021 was one of the most potent political demonstrations this country has witnessed.

More than 4000 women massed on the lawns of Parliament to tell the country’s leaders in no uncertain terms that they’d had enough.

For the political operatives observing that powerful spectacle, it was obvious that this wasn’t just a moment.

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It was the beginning of a movement that would lead all the way to the 2022 election.

And it did.

The largest roar of “Shame!” from the crowd came when Brittany Higgins claimed the Morrison government had tried to cover up her rape.

She said people she had previously considered to be “my family” suddenly treated her differently.

“I wasn’t a person who had just gone through a life-changing traumatic event, I was a political problem,” she said.

It fed into a broader narrative that was incredibly damaging for the Morrison government.

The fact now proven in a civil court that Brittany Higgins had indeed been raped inside a minister’s office at Parliament House was shocking enough.

But her allegation that ministers and advisers right up to the prime minister’s office had then tried to cover it up and discourage her from speaking to the police or publicly about her ordeal was political dynamite.

Sensationally, Justice Michael Lee has now found it was also untrue.

“When examined properly and without partiality, the cover-up allegation was objectively short on facts but long on speculation and internal inconsistencies,” he said.

“Trying to particularise it during the evidence was like trying to grab a column of smoke.”

The now-revealed falsity of a cover-up also helped justify the Albanese Government’s decision to award Ms Higgins more than $2.3 million in compensation.

The judge found that the cover-up narrative was pushed by people around Ms Higgins, including her partner, David Sharaz, the presenter of Network Ten’s The Project program, Lisa Wilkinson, and News Corp journalist Samantha Maiden, who broke the rape story.

Ms Wilkinson won a Logie award for her interview with Ms Higgins. Ms Maiden won Australian journalism’s highest award, the Gold Walkley.

Justice Lee found in his judgment: “The publication of accusations of corrupt conduct in putting up roadblocks and forcing a rape victim to choose between her career and justice won The Project team — like Ms Maiden — a glittering prize; but when the accusation is examined properly it was supposition without reasonable foundation in verifiable fact.”

Documents tendered in Justice Lee’s hearings revealed that News Corp reached a Deed of Settlement with Ms Higgins’s rapist, Bruce Lehrmann, paying $295,000 towards his legal costs in return for discontinuing his defamation claim against Ms Maiden’s reporting.

The ABC also paid him $150,000 to settle a defamation claim brought over its broadcast of Ms Higgins’s National Press Club address alongside former Australian of the Year Grace Tame.

But Network Ten decided to fight the claim against it and Ms Wilkinson. And it has now won.

Despite now being discredited, the cover-up claims had fed into a broader narrative of a Morrison government that was out of touch with the real concerns of women who were facing bullying, harassment and worse in male-dominated workplaces.

It built on growing voter discontent, particularly among women, over separate allegations of sexual misconduct against then-ministers Alan Tudge and Christian Porter.

Those concerns were angrily amplified at the March 4 Justice as speaker after speaker railed against a government they accused of promoting a culture of misogyny and self-protection.

There are many within the Coalition now who believe that this ingrained belief contributed in no small way to the Morrison government being booted from office in the May 2022 election.

The now-revealed falsity of a cover-up also helped justify the Albanese Government’s decision to award Ms Higgins more than $2.3 million in compensation.

It is understood that the payment was made on the basis that the Morrison government had breached its duty of care to Ms Higgins following her rape.

Taxpayers don’t actually know why they have made the payment because Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has kept all aspects of the agreement secret.

But that may change in the coming months.

Ms Higgins’s employer at the time of her rape, former defence minister Linda Reynolds, has lodged a complaint with the new National Anti-Corruption Commission over Dreyfus’s handling of the process.

Reynolds and another of Ms Higgins’s former employers, ex-jobs minister Michaelia Cash, both claim that Dreyfus prevented them from taking part in the Government’s mediation process, effectively allowing Brittany Higgins’s accusations of a cover-up to go unchallenged.

The NACC is now investigating all of that.

About the only person who came out of this affair with their reputation enhanced is Reynolds’s former chief-of-staff, Fiona Brown.

Justice Lee found that she had been unfairly accused by Higgins of being involved in the alleged cover-up and been wrongly subjected to “a torrent of social media abuse”.

“Ms Brown struck me as an archetype of a successful professional administrator,” he said.

And the political fallout from the findings doesn’t end there.

The spotlight has also returned to the way both sides of politics have responded to Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’s review of Parliament House.

Two years after Ms Jenkins’ “Set the Standard Report” was released, fewer than half of her 28 recommendations for change have been fully implemented.

Ms Jenkins says the culture of Parliament is changing for the better, but still has a way to go yet.

Implementing her remaining recommendations without further delay would be a good start.

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