Incurious’ media should have asked more questions about payouts

Chris Mitchell The Australian May 21, 2023

If political reporters who demanded former prime minister Scott Morrison introduce an anti-corruption commission were really concerned about integrity – rather than politics – they would now be calling for the new National Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate two payouts to former political staffers.

The Australian’s columnists, Janet Albrechtsen (last December) and Chris Merritt (on May 12), called for the NACC to investigate a payout of perhaps $3m to former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.

Almost as troubling is the settlement of a workplace claim by political adviser Sally Rugg against Victorian teal independent Monique Ryan, who won the Melbourne seat of Kooyong at last May’s federal election. In affidavits, Rugg says Ryan privately made her a secret offer of six weeks’ pay and the promise of a glowing reference if she resigned. Such matters are meant to be handled by Ministerial and Parliamentary Services, a division of the Department of Finance. Ryan allegedly refused to put the offer in writing, saying: “You know I can’t leave a paper trail.”

Ryan expected Rugg to do what Rugg claims other teal independent MPs had four people doing. Rugg says she was expected to be Ryan’s chief of staff, media adviser, digital engagement manager and community engagement officer. She was asked to work many weekends and “usually worked 70 or 80 hours a week” for a salary of $136,607, plus allowances of $30,205.

Coming after the February 2022 release of Kate Jenkins’ review of workplace conditions within Parliament House, the Rugg affidavits suggest an office dominated by what most workplace HR departments would see as bullying. Rugg says Ryan admitted in one session that she had not read the parliamentary code of conduct.

Ryan, like all the teals, publicly welcomed Jenkins’ review, which found parliamentary staff had had to cope with a culture of sexual harassment and bullying. On June 13 last year, Ryan tweeted: “Introducing a parliamentary code of conduct as recommended by the Jenkins report will be crucial in improving the workplace culture of Parliament House. I’m looking forward to developing a code of conduct that will hold politicians to a high standard.”

On April 1, 2022, just seven weeks before the election, Ryan tweeted: “As the independent candidate for Kooying, I signed a pledge to act honestly and ethically.”

In her maiden speech in parliament on July 28, Ryan spoke about improving the parliamentary workplace. She committed “to working for true equality and safety for women”.

“The people of Kooyong, like all Australians, value fairness, integrity and respect.”

Yet as a doctor herself, Ryan derided Rugg’s sick leave as “stress leave”. And when Rugg had to fly out of Canberra quickly on medical advice after testing positive in the office to Covid, Ryan worried the flight was “a media or brand risk”.

The final settlement details on Rugg’s claim were given to The Age newspaper on the eve of this month’s budget. The commonwealth paid Rugg $100,000 and covered Ryan’s legal costs. The media has asked no questions since the settlement. Readers know how many in the media would report such claims against a male Coalition politician.

Most journalists have been just as incurious about the Higgins settlement. Many news organisations have been soft in their reporting of the mess ACT DPP Shane Drumgold made of his appearances in the commission of inquiry into the now abandoned prosecution of Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann, charged with raping Higgins in Parliament House in March 2019.

Albrechtsen on December 10 raised several concerns about the eventual settlement reached with Higgins after the trial was aborted only days earlier. Lehrmann has denied all charges.

Merritt this month wrote about the likely fate of Drumgold after the inquiry by former judge Walter Sofronoff KC. Whatever the former judge says about the ACT justice system, wrote Merritt, he will not be able to shed light on the government’s payout to Higgins.

The two departments that had to deal with the secret Higgins settlement are run by ministers who are, on the face of it, compromised by their own statements in opposition about the Higgins matter.

Finance Minister Katy Gallagher, then manager of opposition business in the Senate, led parliamentary attacks against Higgins’ one-time boss, former defence industry minister Linda Reynolds. Gallagher has been revealed as the Labor contact of Higgins’ now fiance, David Sharaz.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, in his Adjournment Speech on March 15, 2021, repeated many of the claims made by Higgins at that day’s March for Justice rally, effectively destroying Lehrmann’s presumption of innocence. Dreyfus should have absented himself from comment on the Higgins settlement but instead threatened Reynolds with withdrawal of legal support.

Dreyfus’s office, asked last week if it had received independent legal advice on the government’s likely prospects in any court action by Higgins, flicked the question to the department.

“As part of the Legal Services Directions 2017, in all matters involving the commonwealth, it is standard practice to obtain legal advice,” the A-G’s office said in a statement. There was no indication if this was independent or departmental advice.

This matters with the hindsight of the first fortnight of the Sofronoff inquiry. The Higgins payout was compensation for a workplace matter but the negotiation did not hear from those in the workplace accused of wrongdoing during the Lehrmann trial – Reynolds, and then attorney-general Michaelia Cash.

Wrote Merritt: “The Albanese government threatened to tear up an agreement to pay (Reynolds’ and Cash’s) legal fees and costs unless they agreed not to attend a mediation session that led to the Higgins payout. Their views were not heard.”

Yet Lehrmann’s lawyer, Steven Whybrow, said in his submission to the inquiry that Higgins had “been allowed to make allegations about Reynolds and Cash that were fabrications”.

Indeed in February, Albrechtsen and this newspaper’s NSW editor, Stephen Rice, reported a previously unknown email from Department of Finance deputy secretary Lauren Barons to Reynolds’ chief of staff, Fiona Brown, written six days after the alleged assault of Higgins. The email stated Brown’s office had taken all appropriate steps in regards to the matter.

We know that whatever Higgins claimed in her negotiations, she has moved on in her personal and work lives. She announced her engagement to Sharaz on December 31 and in March opened a new consulting business with former Hawker Britton staffer and friend Emma Webster.

Drumgold accepted in the Sofronoff inquiry that Reynolds and Cash were not the source of political interference in the trial, as he had wrongly suggested earlier. And Reynolds laid out a compelling case about her handling of the matter in a February interview with Albrechtsen.

Australians need to know the Higgins payout was more than a political exercise to damage the Coalition, and the Rugg payout more than a political effort to keep a crossbencher onside. A job for the NACC.

1/ Brittany Higgins. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage

2/ Monique Ryan, left, and Sally Rugg in happier times.

Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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