Under-qualified and over-confident – what ‘advice’ could these people possibly offer?

Many questions remain from the defamation trial of the century – including what were two under-qualified, over-confident young political hangers-on doing inside Parliament, least of all after a night on the drink. David Fagan investigates

Apr 16, 2024, updated Apr 16, 2024
Former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins makes a statement after leaving the ACT Supreme Court in Canberra. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins makes a statement after leaving the ACT Supreme Court in Canberra. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

THE “omnishambles” that Justice Michael Lee unscrambled yesterday settled many important issues in the saga that began with two drunk political staffers taking a midnight diversion to their minister’s office but it leaves one big, unanswered question.

It is this: What possible advice could these 20-something, still undergraduates (both found on testing to be unreliable witnesses) be giving a Federal Government minister? And they’re probably not alone.

What did they know that was of any value to their boss, the Defence Industry Minister Senator Linda Reynolds? What superpowers did they possess that would make their insight more valuable than the entire defence establishment available to Senator Reynolds and the government she was part of?

Who hired them? What qualifications did they possess? Would either of them have scored a job anywhere else with similar qualifications and judgement?

Let’s start with Bruce Lehrmann who has made his character the issue which Justice Lee ruled on in yesterday’s verdict in the defamation trial which has left no winners. The verdict on his character: he has none. He is a rapist. And he is a liar – and not a very good one at that.

Brittany Higgins comes out of this far better. Her clear and unwavering accusation that Lehrmann raped her stands – even if her assailant has avoided criminal sanction. Mind you, her reputation is not unsullied.

Lehrmann, Justice Lee found in his judgement was a disorganised liar. Higgins was more organised. Neither description helps their career prospects nor leaves this citizen confident about the processes by which political offices recruit and promote their talent.

We know surprisingly little about how Lehrmann landed in a coalition ministerial office after the Abbott Government was elected in 2013. We do know that by 2019, he was characterising himself as a senior adviser. Like many in that camp, he had amazing self-belief. So much so that he gave sworn evidence that he was dispatched to a bar on a Friday night to meet Defence brass and discuss Australia’s biggest defence and manufacturing contract, the now abandoned French submarine deal.

Justice Lee, rightly, rejects this self-aggrandisement but, surprisingly, no one then part of the federal government has hosed down the notion that a ministerial staffer would be testing the waters on moving parts of the submarine construction project to a different state (as it happens the home state of his minister). Lehrmann was a defence policy adviser whose experience was limited to what he might have seen on Netflix, Stan or at the cinema.

Former Liberal Party staffer Bruce Lehrmann. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

We know a little more about Brittany Higgins. She was a double-degree student at Griffith University, landed in a state MP’s office through her involvement in Gold Coast Liberal Party politics and parlayed this into Canberra ministerial positions. She was a media adviser who had never worked in the media although, on her evidence, she was keen to network with colleagues including Lehrmann to demonstrate she could be more than a receptionist.

She now has her degrees – the best possible demonstration of skills.

The worry is that ministerial offices are full of such inexperience. And it has been highlighted across all levels of government in recent years that ministerial officers play too heavy a hand in sanitising the frank and fearless advice we taxpayers fund the public service to supply ministers.

So, how do they get there? I would say it’s with too little rigour.

An applicant for a position at Australia’s biggest (and currently most vilified) private sector employer Woolworths has to jump through at least five hoops to land a starting level job. That will include a range of cognitive and psychometric tests as well as video and personal interviews and the expected reference checks. Same at Coles. Same at any mine site.

One sample question from the Woolies test assesses verbal reasoning and asks: “Which of the following is the opposite of meticulous? (a) careful (b) negligent (c) thorough (d) detailed. I don’t need to tell you the answer but the two principals in this might need some help as neither was exactly meticulous on the night that started this “omnishambles”. Politics has always attracted bright, young people. They’re drawn to it by idealism and ambition. Too many, now, come with none of the other life experience that makes their advice valuable.

It’s on the elected politicians to fix this, to ensure rigorous appointment processes, understanding of the boundaries between political and bureaucratic advice. And to use some of their own common sense to rein in excess in their own offices.

If nothing else, this whole affair has blown the lid off cultural failings that are a significant contributor to poor government. There’s no reason for anyone – whatever their politics – to think a Parliament House office should be a late-night whisky bar or bordello for young staffers buoyed by too many drinks and too little judgement.



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