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Paul Bongiorno: Linda Reynolds is doing Liberals no favours pursuing Brittany Higgins

Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds (left) could expand her legal case against Brittany Higgins.

Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds (left) could expand her legal case against Brittany Higgins. Photos: Getty

All the signs are retiring Liberal Senator and former cabinet minister Linda Reynolds is hell bent on continuing her pursuit of the woman who once worked for her, Brittany Higgins.

Reynolds is doing so at great financial cost to herself as she confirmed at the weekend by seeking damages from Australia’s highest-profile rape victim in the Western Australian Supreme Court.

Reynolds is indignant that Higgins and her fiancée David Sharaz have not retracted their claims made on social media that the former staffer received no support but “was subjected to a damaging political cover-up”.

More scrutiny to come

Whatever the outcome of that action if it goes ahead in the Supreme Court in July as listed, Reynolds should not imagine that her actions will not face intense scrutiny and cross examination in a trial that is sure to be yet another media circus grabbing the attention of the nation.

The collateral damage in this rolling “omnishambles” as Federal Court judge Michael Lee described the whole sorry saga will not be confined to the players in the court room.

The broader political cost will also be borne by her leader Peter Dutton and the Liberal Party, suffering as it does a significant deficit of support among women voters.

Doorknockers for teal independent candidates in Sydney at the last election found the top issues for voters were climate, women and corruption.

As has already been noted in the media, Dutton’s first public reaction to Justice Michael Lee’s finding that “Mr Lehrmann raped Ms Higgins” was to completely ignore it and instead focus on his lesser finding “that the cover-up allegation was objectively short on facts, but long on speculation and internal inconsistencies”.

Journalist Samantha Maiden – who in breaking the rape story unlike The Project interview did not talk of cover-up – said she found it remarkable that Dutton did not mention Brittany Higgins by name and “no words of support into such a grave and serious finding”.

Dutton said that Linda Reynolds “has absolutely been vindicated”.

Compensation query

He said his colleague’s reputation “has been besmirched” and the matter should be settled – that is compensation paid after “a full apology”.

Indeed, Reynolds has separately launched legal action in France trying to freeze the $2.4 million payout Higgins received from the Commonwealth. This can only be interpreted as ensuring her former staffer will have the funds to meet any successful damages claim.

That payout was independently assessed by lawyers for the Commonwealth and Higgins during one year of negotiations, the grounds included being raped in the workplace, suffering psychiatric injury, economic loss, bullying as well as the disputed inadequate support.

How this pursuit of a rape victim whose speaking out has led to wide-ranging reforms for the protection of women in parliamentary workplaces plays out in teal electorates – let alone among women everywhere – boggles the mind.

Then there’s the little matter of Reynolds already on the record apologising to Brittany Higgins for calling her a “lying cow” in front of staff and military personnel in her office.

The outburst was reported as the minister’s reaction the day after the original bombshell interview was broadcast.

Higgins sued and said she would direct any monies she received as part of the settlement to be paid in full to sexual assault services in the Canberra area.

Higgins said she had chosen “to come forward to help others”.

Something Higgins repeated in a weekend statement pointing to the “thousands of staff working in Commonwealth ministerial offices, from every side of politics” who came forward and contributed to the Jenkins review.

Reynolds replies

Reynolds on Sunday said she “appreciated Ms Higgins apology” for the toll suffered by herself and chief of staff, Fiona Brown.

The former minister rejected Higgins explanation that “her perceptions and feelings about what happened in the days and weeks after my rape are different to theirs” and she deeply regrets they have not found common ground.

Reynolds is looking for an unequivocal acceptance of Justice Lee’s findings otherwise the issue “will have to be proved again in our trial” set for midyear.

The Senator says she hopes Justice Lee’s findings in “relation to Ms Higgins’ allegation of rape give her peace” but claims her legal action has nothing to do with the rape.

This simply makes no sense – Higgins “recollections and feelings” were all about the rape and her lawyers will no doubt probe what were Reynolds’ actions that may have contributed to them.

‘Extraordinary finding’

Meanwhile on Sunday Peter Dutton still hadn’t expressed any sympathy for Higgins and was raising questions about the payout and talking from both sides of his mouth.

He said he didn’t think “the problem in relation to the payout is on Brittany’s side” but thought it was on the government’s side.

The Prime Minister on Monday was incredulous.

“The judge found last week that Brittany Higgins was raped. In amongst all of the commentary, a judge found that a young Liberal Party staffer was raped in a cabinet minister’s office just metres from the Prime Minister’s office,” he said.

Albanese said in terms of victims “that’s an extraordinary finding” and he said the payout was done at arm’s length – just as payouts to previous Liberal staffers which the Coalition knows full well.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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