Federal Minister for Finance, Women and the Public Service Senator Katy Gallagher is reportedly stepping back from a number of public sector meetings this week as she prepares to defend against an expected parliamentary onslaught by the Opposition over what she knew about Brittany Higgins’ sexual assault claims and when she knew it.
The government has been accused of colluding, when in Opposition, with Ms Higgins and her partner, David Sharaz, over the claims in the lead-up to Ms Higgins going public with them in an interview with Channel 10 in February 2021.
The accusation comes after the leaking of text conversations between Ms Higgins and Mr Sharaz, their publication in The Australian last week, and an audio file of a pre-interview discussion between the couple and Channel 10’s Lisa Wilkinson.
In June 2021, Senator Gallagher was accused by former Defence Minister Senator Linda Reynolds – in whose office the alleged assault took place – of having prior knowledge of Ms Higgins’ claims before the interview and of weaponising them, a claim Senator Gallagher vehemently denied in Senate Estimates.
“I was told by one of your senators two weeks before about what you were intending to do with the story in my office – two weeks before,” Senator Reynolds said in the committee, to which Senator Gallagher responded, “No one had any knowledge – how dare you, it’s all about protecting yourself”.
But on Saturday (10 June), Senator Gallagher told media on the sidelines of a conference in Perth that she had been made aware prior to Ms Higgins’ Channel 10 interview that a claim about an assault in a minister’s office was about to be made public.
“I was given some information. I did nothing with that information,” Senator Gallagher said. “I was clear about that to Senator Reynolds when she raised these concerns in the committee.
“When she raised it. I explained what had happened, but I categorically rejected — and you see that in the footage of the committee – I categorically rejected the assertion she was putting, which was that we had chosen to weaponise that information weeks ahead of being told about it,” she added.
Four days before Ms Higgins’ interview, an exchange between her and Mr Sharaz said, “Katy is going to come to me with some questions”. They also suggested Senator Gallagher was sent a transcript of the interview before it went to air. Other texts suggested Senator Gallagher was an “old friend” and that she “wants to help”.
Senator Gallagher said, “Mr Sharaz provided me with information. I think we’ve seen that in the paper in the last couple of days. I did nothing with that information and I was clear about that at the time”.
Despite Senator Gallagher pushing back on the Coalition’s claims, Region understands she has postponed some planned public sector meetings while Patrick Gorman, the new Assistant Minister for the Public Service, is taking her place in others.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has stood by his Finance Minister, denying on Friday’s Sunrise program that Senator Gallagher had misled parliament and rejecting a suggestion that Labor had “carefully orchestrated” Ms Higgins’ allegations to its political benefit.
“You had allegations by a Liberal staffer that another Liberal staffer had a sexual assault in a Liberal minister’s office, and somehow Katy Gallagher has some responsibility for what was going on here. Like, this is bizarre,” he said.
Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong has also disputed claims the assault allegation was weaponised.
“I did not know the full details of the allegations before the story became public,” she said. “There are others who did know a lot of detail, including Morrison government ministers, and they have still failed to account for what they did with that information.
“I’d ask people to consider the impact on Ms Higgins of all of this commentary,” she said, adding, “I’d ask people to recall that when the [Director of Public Prosecutions] discontinued the prosecution, they discussed, and I quote, that ‘the trial represented a significant and unacceptable risk to her life’.”
Former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann has always maintained his innocence over the assault, and the trial against him was aborted in October 2022 due to juror misconduct. Prosecutors decided against a retrial as they were concerned for Ms Higgins’ mental health.