Thursday, December 15, 2022

The defence against the Brittany Higgins damages claim was muzzled

The government was determined to pay her, presumably to set the matter to rest. Once again, justice had nothing to do with it. It was feminist concerns that mattered

The Albanese government muzzled former Liberal minister Linda Reynolds in her defence against Brittany Higgins’ multimillion-dollar lawsuit, threatening to tear up an agreement to pay her legal fees and any costs awarded unless she agreed not to attend a mediation.

Ms Higgins reached a confidential settlement with the commonwealth, believed to be worth up to $3m, at the mediation on Tuesday over the former staffer’s claims she was not supported by Senator Reynolds or Liberal Party frontbencher Michaelia Cash after the alleged sexual assault by Bruce Lehrmann in Parliament House.

Senator Reynolds is understood to have been determined to defend herself against Ms Higgins’ allegations but in correspondence obtained by The Australian, the commonwealth’s lawyers told her she could not take part in the mediation.

Senator Reynolds was therefore unable to dispute any of Ms Higgins’ allegations about a failure to support her or properly investigate the incident, some of which were contested at Mr Lehrmann’s trial.

Senator Reynolds gave evidence that Ms Higgins told her during a meeting on April 1, 2019, that she had been very drunk and woke in a state of distress after the incident on March 23, 2019, but did not say she had been sexually assaulted.

Senator Reynolds’ then chief of staff, Fiona Brown, said Ms Higgins told her during a meeting on March 28 – five days after the alleged rape – that she remembered “him (Lehrmann) being on top of me” and on April 1 was offered support and encouraged to speak with police.

Senator Cash told the trial she first learnt of an incident in Oct­ober 2019 but Ms Higgins disclosed the matter related to an alleged assault only on February 5, 2021.

Mr Lehrmann pleaded not guilty in the trial, which was later aborted because of juror misconduct. He has repeatedly stated his innocence.

The Australian understands Senator Cash was also sent a letter muzzling her and instructing her not to attend the mediation in return for her legal fees being paid by the commonwealth.

Neither Senator Reynolds nor Senator Cash was asked for evidence that contested Ms Higgins’ claims.

The taxpayer-funded settlement was revealed by Ms Higgins’ lawyers in a late-night statement on Tuesday apparently designed to minimise media coverage.

Legal sources have expressed astonishment that such a complex and expensive settlement was resolved in a single sitting.

Senator Reynolds said she was unable to comment on the matter. “I did not participate in the mediation and I have not been informed by the department of the outcome,” she said.

Her lawyers, Clayton Utz, in a letter dated December 9, 2022, accused the government of seeking to hamper her ability to defend herself against Ms Higgins’ claims and of not meeting Legal Services Directions.

“We find it difficult to see how, without any further particularisation of the causes of action that Ms Higgins seeks to rely on and any evidence in support of the same, the commonwealth could possibly be satisfied of the criteria for settlement on the basis of legal principle and practice and ‘a meaningful prospect of liability being established’ in accordance with those directions,” they said.

Clayton Utz partner Ashley Tsacalos noted a provision in the Legal Services Directions that “settlement is not to be effected merely because of the cost of defending what is a spurious claim” and must be on the basis of written advice from the Australian Government Solicitor “that the settlement is in accordance with legal principle and practice”.

It is not known whether the AGS provided such advice.

The commonwealth’s lawyers had also demanded they take control of Senator Reynolds’ defence – even though the commonwealth had previously claimed it was unable to provide legal advice or act for her, forcing her to employ her own legal team.

Dr Tsacalos questioned whether Anthony Albanese, ­Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus or Finance Minister Katie Gallagher had the power to impose conditions under the parliamentary regulations “in circumstances where all have previously made public statements supporting Ms Higgins and her version of events”.

Under the Parliamentary Business Resources Regulations, they were all “involved” in the matter, according to Dr Tsacalos.

He quoted numerous examples from Hansard, including Mr Dreyfus, when opposition legal affairs spokesman, directly citing Ms Higgins’ statement “I was raped inside Parliament House by a colleague and for so long it felt like the people around me did not care what happened because of what it might mean for them”.

The parliamentary regulations forbid such conflicts of interest by those making decisions on legal assistance, he said.

Similarly, Mr Dreyfus ought not to make any decision about controlling the conduct of Senator Reynolds’ defence, Dr Tsacalos said.

“Such decisions and involvement have a direct impact on Senator Reynolds’ ability to mount a proper defence,” he said.

The other potential “approving ministers” to grant legal aid under the parliamentary regulations – the Prime Minister and Ms Gallagher – were equally involved in the case. Ms Gallagher was central in pursuing the saga against the former Morrison ­government when in opposition.

“Considering the consistent and public position taken by the Prime Minister and other senior members of his government on the claims made by Ms Higgins, it may be impossible to find a minister in the federal government who had not taken a similar position and, therefore, who ought not make any decision … to control the conduct of Senator Reynolds’ defence,” Dr Tsacalos said.

On Monday, Mr Albanese declined to answer questions from the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas about whether it was a conflict of interest for Ms Gallagher to sign off on a settlement, given her earlier engagement on the issue and whether she should recuse herself from any involvement in it.


Drugs, vaping, weapons: Queensland state schools incidents ‘skyrocketing’

Queensland state schools handed out more than 40 drug-related disciplines a day this year in a major spike that Education Minister Grace Grace says is from a crackdown on vaping.

The latest Department of Education data has revealed an increase in school suspensions and exclusions for drug-related incidents, including for vaping, tobacco and medication.

As of November 15, 2022, Queensland state schools handed out 7853 suspensions or exclusions for drug-related incidents, up from 7514 in 2021.

State school students were also disciplined for bringing weapons to campus 520 times, below 2021 results where 657 disciplinary actions were enforced.

E-cigarettes were labelled as a “public health crisis” in a recent study while educators say vaping is rife across public and private schools.

Education Minister Grace Grace said vaping was a broader health issue that needed to be addressed by a society as a whole.

“The growth in drug-related incidents relates primarily to the increase in students suspended for vaping,” Ms Grace said. “Vaping is banned at all Queensland state schools and a range of resources are available to help schools reduce its prevalence. “Schools will play their part, but these issues do not start and finish at the school gate.”

Ms Grace stressed that the vast majority of 570,000 students across 1258 schools were well behaved, and that every incident was taken seriously.

LNP Education spokesman Dr Christian Rowan said the number of drug-related incidents had “skyrocketed” compared to the five-year average of 4120 per year from 2017-2021.


Talks revive hopes for future of Mount Warning Wollumbin trail

Its closure ignited controversy around the country, but hikers have been offered a glimmer the popular Mount Warning Wollumbin summit trail will open to visitors again.

Hikers on the iconic Wollumbin summit could be accompanied by Indigenous tour guides in a last-ditch effort to keep the Mount Warning trail open to the public.

The track to the popular mountain top – the first place in Australia to catch the day’s sun, has been shut for almost three years in a succession of “temporary” closures citing Covid-compliance and later maintenance issues.

The fate of the trail – which attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually, was seemingly sealed in October with the release of a Wollumbin Aboriginal Place Management Plan which recommended the “immediate” closure of the area.

However, a meeting will be held on Thursday “to provide a forum for key stakeholders, including local government and the tourism industry, to provide input to future decisions regarding Wollumbin”.

It has left the door ajar for hopes some sort of compromise could allow visitors to return to the mountain, which has special significance for the Aboriginal people according to the Wollumbin Consultative Group which has recommended the area “should not be a recreational space for the public to visit or use for tourism”.

Tweed Mayor Chris Cherry, who will attend Thursday’s meeting, said she still held out a small hope that hikers could return to the much-loved attraction “in a respectful way”.

She said she would like to see group hikes led by Indigenous guides in a bid to properly manage the site and teach visitors about Aboriginal culture.

“My preferred outcome would be that the mountain could be shared with the wider community,” she said. “I’m going into the meeting with an open mind.”

She also proposed an “Uluru-style” transition period where people could visit the park again until a permanent closure if the Wollumbin Working Group would not reconsider a move to officially reopen the trail. “It could be managed in a way that allows people time to visit again before the closure became permanent,” she said. “It could be much like the way Uluru had that transition period (before climbing was banned).”

Member for Tweed Geoff Provest backed Cr Cherry’s suggestion for Indigenous guides to lead climbing groups on the mountain. “I like the idea of charging people to go up there, having Indigenous rangers leading hikes,” he said. “We’ve seen that elsewhere and this would be the perfect fit.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service said the organisation would “support the advisory committee and facilitate its engagement with Aboriginal custodians”.


Teachers don’t always follow evidence on what works, research finds

Australian students are being held back by poor teaching practices and lack of direction in the classroom, researchers say.

A major survey of teaching practices by the government-funded Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) found that managing disruptive behaviour was also a major downfall in Australian teachers’ adoption of the best evidence on teaching practice.

Schools were overly reliant on suspension and expulsion, rather than working towards creating focused classrooms and respectful students, the survey found.

Most Australian teachers did use evidence of what works to inform their teaching practice, but many factors – including a lack of time and confidence – often prevented them from adopting the most effective practice to help students learn, AERO found.

Maximising the use of evidence-based teaching practices was critical to turning around stagnant and declining outcomes in Australian schools, as evidenced by NAPLAN and PISA results, the report argued.

More than 930 teachers and school leaders were surveyed about their teaching practice.

Head of research and evaluation at AERO, Dr Zid Mancenido, said the study provided important insights into the classroom practices of Australian teachers.

“For the first time we can see what is working well and what needs to change about how evidence is being used in Australian schools,” Mancenido said.

He said he hoped the research would drive support for more teachers to effectively use evidence and reverse Australia’s recent declines in student achievement.

“The findings show promise but need to go much further if we are to lift educational outcomes for all students.”

The survey found that 64 per cent of teachers have regular access to instructional coaching on using evidence to improve their teaching, and 73 per cent work at schools that set aside regular times to discuss evidence that could improve their teaching practice.

But it also found that 36 per cent allow unguided instruction or independent inquiry time for students to discover answers for themselves, and 71 per cent design lessons that match the different learning styles of their students.

“These practices are not supported by evidence,” the report found.

The report also surveyed teachers on their classroom management practices, and found that just 61 per cent of teachers frequently tell students to follow classroom rules.

It cited research from the OECD’s latest Teaching and Learning International Survey (2018), which showed that a quarter of Australian teachers need to wait a long time for students to quieten down so that teaching can begin, and a third lose a lot of time because of students interrupting the lesson.

Adam Voigt, chief executive of consultancy Real Schools, said many teachers felt pressured to deliver the content of a large curriculum at the expense of focusing on what students are actually gaining from the lesson.

“There is the kind of pressure that teaching has become a job where what you are trying to do is get through the curriculum so that you can tick off ‘Yes, I taught this’, but it actually isn’t something that engaged the students and got them activated,” Voigt said.

Many teachers, particularly early career teachers, are looking for robust guidance on how to manage disruptive behaviour, something they are inadequately prepared for in initial teacher education.

“We’ve still got a lot of focus in our pre-service teacher training on the what of teaching, but not the how,” Voigt said.

Dr Jordana Hunter, Grattan Institute program director for education, said keeping up-to-date with research evidence is a big challenge for time-poor teachers: “There needs to be more opportunities for expert teachers, with strong mastery of the research evidence in their subject area, to work with other teachers in their school.”

Hunter said it was disappointing that less than half of surveyed teachers said they would encourage a colleague to stop using a teaching practice that isn’t supported by good evidence.

“Every student deserves best-practice teaching,” she said.




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