Agriculture Minister Murray Watt says the Coalition has failed in a test of decency over its repeated questioning of government ministers over former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ secret payout.
The opposition has consistently used Senate question time over the past fortnight to pursue Labor frontbenchers over their knowledge of Higgins’ rape allegation before she went public in February 2021, and the circumstances of her financial settlement with the government.
Watt, who was fielding questions in the Senate on behalf of Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, said he couldn’t believe the opposition continued to throw questions at the government in the drawn-out political saga.
“It’s all about an alleged survivor. That’s who it’s actually about. That’s what it’s about, and you people don’t have the decency to respect that,” Watt said. “This has been a test of the decency of the opposition they have failed.”
Former Coalition staffer Bruce Lehrmann pleaded not guilty to raping Higgins in the office of their former boss, Linda Reynolds, in March 2019.
His trial was aborted due to juror misconduct in October last year, before the case against Lehrmann was dropped because of Higgins’ mental health. Lehrmann has maintained his innocence.
The Coalition used the publication of leaked text messages to pursue Finance Minister Katy Gallagher, after she was purportedly named by Higgins’ partner David Sharaz as having been told of the allegation before Higgins went public.
The questioning prompted independent senator Lidia Thorpe to accuse senator David Van of sexual harassment – claims he strongly denies – which led to him being booted to the crossbench and resigning from the Liberal Party after Opposition Leader Peter Dutton spoke of two other complaints against him.
Watt said he had no doubt “people will look back on the last two weeks to judge the relative character of the government and the opposition and the way they have dealt with these matters”.
“There are any number of questions that the government could have asked of the opposition over the last couple of weeks, given the way things have turned out. And how many of them have we asked? Not one because some of us in this chamber have some decency,” he said.