A question of trust? Brittany Higgins leaks bathe Canberra in a new light

The asking of the old question, ‘Who knew what and when?’ has not historically been a good sign for governments.

It will hang over Parliament after it reconvenes on Tuesday as old details in the Brittany Higgins case take on new political importance.

But in a Canberra environment in which people’s public statements are increasingly fact-checked by leaks it’s not where the answer will lead.

Finance Minister Katy Gallagher is facing scrutiny over testimony she gave the Senate two years ago about whether Labor knew Ms Higgins was planning to go public with a bombshell allegation she had been raped in Parliament.

“No one had any knowledge,” she said then.

No knowledge

Ms Gallagher was responding to a question implying Labor had known for weeks about the allegation and intended to use it for political ends.

An unsourced transcript of leaked messages sent by Ms Higgins’ boyfriend and published in The Australian implies the minister learned of this allegation four days before it was broadcast in a sensational Channel Ten interview on February 15.

Ms Gallagher has since said she had been told only about a story “making serious allegations”, but did not act on the information.

The texts were provided by Ms Higgins to police during the criminal investigation.

It’s not the first well-timed leak about the Higgins matter to raise suspicions – or questions of credibility.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) declined to comment when Ms Higgins said on Twitter that material “entrusted to police” had been leaked, including the pages of her diary.

The AFP was not known to have held material leaked earlier this month, another five-hour recording of Ms Higgins and former Ten journalist Lisa Wilkinson, which was leaked to a rival network.

Ten said the information had been provided under subpoena to Mr Lehrmann’s defence team and the prosecutor in the case.

John Macgowan, until recently Mr Lehrmann’s media adviser and a veteran Liberal Party spin doctor, declined to comment.

A lawyer in the case has referred the leak to police, Nine newspapers reported on Monday.

Orchestrated campaign

High-profile defamation barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC, who is representing Wilkinson, told the Federal Court in Sydney on Friday the ongoing media storm surrounding Ms Higgins and her client seemed like an “orchestrated campaign” to influence the proceedings.

In any case, they threaten to complicate the case’s already murky timeline, one already featuring many of the leading players in national politics.

Senator Gallagher learned of the allegation 18 months before staff in Peter Dutton’s office were first informed of the allegation by the AFP, but the same day the Opposition Leader maintains the police told him.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison was asked in Parliament, days after the interview’s airing, whether he had discussed its contents with the then chief of staff in the defence minister’s office, Fiona Brown.

“I have discussed with her those matters,” he told Parliament.

But in an interview published this weekend, Ms Brown alleged that Mr Morrison had knowingly misled the Parliament.

“I remember him coming back after question time on that Thursday … and for the first time (after the interview),” she said.

“The only thing he says in relation to this matter ever, is: ‘We’ve spoken’. That’s it. ‘We’ve spoken, haven’t we?’

“Could you imagine how it felt? I thought he genuinely came by to check how I was. I hadn’t ­really heard question time.”

Question of trust

“I did not mislead the Parliament,” Senator Gallagher said in a statement this weekend. “I wasn’t aware of the full allegations that were made public when the interviews went to air.”

In the transcript of text messages published by The Australian, Mr Sharaz reportedly claims he gave Senator Gallagher The Project interview so she could “get all the context”.

“It’s [a question] of trust,” former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce said on Sunday of Senator Gallagher.

“When you say you don’t have any knowledge [that] means you don’t have any knowledge.”

Mr Lehrmann denied the charges, which were first the subject of a mistrial and then dropped because of a fear another hearing would pose an “unacceptable risk” to Ms Higgins’ health.

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