Reynolds claims Gallagher confirmed early knowledge of rape claim

Liberal senator Linda Reynolds says Katy Gallagher confirmed to her that she knew about Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation before the former staffer went public, as pressure mounts on the Labor frontbencher over claims she misled parliament.

Gallagher said during a Senate hearing on June 4, 2021 that “no one” had any knowledge of Higgins’ claim before it was made public on February 15, 2021. She accused Reynolds of trying to protect herself when the then-Coalition minister suggested Labor MPs, including Gallagher and Penny Wong, had been tipped off about the allegations ahead of the story’s publication.

Liberal senator Linda Reynolds says Finance Minister Katy Gallagher confirmed to her that she knew about Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation before the former staffer went public.

Wong and Gallagher both denied that claim during the hearing, with Gallagher firing back: “No one had any knowledge. How dare you? It’s all about protecting yourself.”

But leaked text messages between Higgins and her partner, David Sharaz, obtained by suggest that Gallagher had been made aware of the rape allegations by Sharaz on February 11 – four days before they were aired for the first time on Network Ten’s and published by on February 15, 2021.

In one of the messages, Sharaz says to Higgins that Gallagher is “really invested” in the story and that “Katy is going to come to me with some questions you need to prepare for”.

Reynolds, who is preparing to refer Higgins’ payout from the government to the new National Anti-Corruption Commission, said that Gallagher confirmed to her and Liberal senator Anne Ruston “her knowledge of an alleged incident occurring before the story became public” during a meeting in the dinner break of the hearings that day.

Reynolds said she took notes of the meeting at the time.

“[I] can confirm these notes will be used in the NACC referral,” she said.

Reynolds later told the estimates hearing she had met with Gallagher and Wong, who had also been in the hearing.

“I had a very respectful discussion during the dinner break, and they’ve assured me they were not involved in that matter becoming public. I accept their assurance. Thank you,” Reynolds said at the time.

Gallagher did not respond to requests for comment on Friday, but Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he was confident the minister did not mislead parliament.

Ruston and Wong were asked for comment.

Bruce Lehrmann, the man accused by Higgins of rape, has always denied the allegations, and his trial was aborted because of juror misconduct. The charges were later dropped.

Lawyers for Lehrmann, Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson appeared in the Federal Court in Sydney on Friday for a preliminary hearing in Lehrmann’s defamation case against the broadcaster and its high-profile reporter.

Sue Chrysanthou, SC, acting for Wilkinson, said there had been an “overwhelming amount of inappropriate media … directed to my client and to witnesses who she may call”, which “tends to, and has had, the effect of putting improper pressure on my client”.

She alleged Higgins’ phone records, among other material, were “being distributed to the media” and “it seems to us to be an orchestrated campaign” and referred to articles published in The Australian and The Daily Telegraph.

An affidavit by Ten’s solicitor, read in court on Friday, revealed the network also raised concerns with Lehrmann’s lawyers that his interview on Seven Network’s program last Sunday may have aired separate material obtained from Ten during his since-abandoned criminal trial, which may amount to a contempt of court.

But Matthew Richardson, SC, acting for Lehrmann, told the court that his client absolutely denied the allegation.

“It is a grave and serious allegation; it is aggravating the damages in this case,” Richardson said.

In an email on June 6, the ACT’s acting Director of Public Prosecutions, Anthony Williams, SC, told Ten’s solicitor that on the basis of information provided to him it did appear there had been a breach of legal obligations not to disclose information obtained from Ten under subpoena for the purposes of the criminal trial. However, he said “what is not clear to me on the available information is who exactly breached the undertaking, and the circumstances surrounding that breach”.

He noted that a breach “constitutes a contempt of court”.

“One reasonably available inference is that Mr Lehrmann provided the material to Channel 7 in breach of the undertaking. But that, of course, it not the only reasonably available inference. It also remains reasonably possible that any number of other people who had access to the documents could have breached it. What is also unclear is the ‘knowledge’ of Channel 7 surrounding the provenance of the documents,” Williams said.

Williams said he did not propose to institute proceedings for contempt of court, but said that Ten could do so.

The text messages published over the past week suggest that Sharaz was in direct contact with Albanese when he was opposition leader. He gave his phone number to Sharaz on April 21, 2021 to organise a meeting with Higgins.

Albanese and then-prime minister Scott Morrison both met Higgins in Sydney on April 30, 2021.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek also features in messages between Sharaz and Higgins on May 5, 2021, as someone they should approach with information that Morrison’s former chief of staff, John Kunkel, had asked Higgins to discuss her rape allegations.

While the text messages suggest that Sharaz was contacting Albanese, Gallagher and Plibersek, they do not show whether they replied or what they said in response.

On Friday morning, Albanese said “no” when asked if Gallagher had misled parliament.

“What is being suggested here by Peter Dutton, 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? This is bizarre,” he said.

“You had a circumstance also where Scott Morrison had an inquiry by Phil Gaetjens, his former chief of staff who was then the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet into who knew what in his own office. We still have never, ever seen that report.

“She [Gallagher] is a great minister, she is a great finance minister, and she is a great minister for the status of women.”

Deputy Opposition Leader Sussan Ley said on Friday Gallagher appeared to know about the rape allegations before they were aired publicly, which meant she may have misled parliament in the June 2021 Senate hearing.

“It looks like Katy Gallagher has misled parliament about what she knew and when she knew it. And this is a serious problem; she is part of Anthony Albanese’s leadership team,” Ley said.

“We have only heard one side of the story through these text messages. But that’s because the other side – the finance minister – refuses to front up and take any questions.”

South Australian crossbench MP Rebekha Sharkie said the suggestion Gallagher may have misled parliament was a serious concern.

“These are serious allegations and I assume that next week in the Senate, Gallagher will explain what she knew and when and whether she did indeed mislead the parliament,” she said.

My concern on this is that whatever did occur it appears to have been politicised by both sides of the parliament and that is deeply troubling.”

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