Australian taxpayers paid $110,000 for federal ministers’ legal bills in last financial year

by Paul Karp
Documents reveal legal assistance was approved for former PM Scott Morrison in relation to a defamation claim made against him on 9 June 2020

Taxpayers have forked out $110,000 for federal ministers’ legal bills in the last financial year, including $4,000 to defend Scott Morrison against a 2020 defamation claim.

Documents tabled in parliament on Tuesday reveal taxpayers are on the hook for a pipeline of potential new cases, including former superannuation minister Jane Hume’s legal bills in a defamation stoush with Simon Holmes à Court.

The statement of expenditure, tabled by attorney general Mark Dreyfus, reveals that the most expensive matter in 2021-22 was $77,025 of legal assistance to Linda Reynolds “approved on 30 April, 2021 in relation to an Australian federal police investigation”.

Attorney general’s department officials confirmed in Senate estimates this relates to the former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ sexual assault allegation against Bruce Lehrmann. Lehrmann is pleading not guilty. The case proceeds to trial in October.

Reynolds also received approval for “a claim filed against her on 3 March, 2022” and on 22 March 2022 to respond to a subpoena.

The documents reveal that on 30 June 2020 legal assistance was approved for former prime minister Scott Morrison in relation to a defamation claim made against him on 9 June 2020. Taxpayers were charged $4,122, although no details are given about the claim.

Regulations allow the government to approve taxpayer funding for legal assistance to ministers involved in proceedings or responding to subpoenas received in the performance of ministerial duties.

Hume received approval on 4 May 2022 for “a defamation claim” that the then attorney general, Michaelia Cash, certified she was satisfied related to her ministerial duties.

On 14 May Holmes à Court publicly confirmed he had sent a defamation concerns notice to Hume in relation to “defamatory lies” she made in an interview claiming he had directed “teal” independent candidates not to disclose who they would vote for in a hung parliament.

Hume referred to the legal threat in a fiery exchange with the Climate 200 founder at polling booths later in May.

“Just leave me alone Simon please leave me alone,” she reportedly said. “You are suing me for defamation Simon, I don’t want to talk to you.”

Holmes à Court told Guardian Australia he did not think it “appropriate that the taxpayer picks up responsibility for hyper-partisan language, disconnected from a minister’s portfolio responsibility”.

A spokeswoman for Hume said the assistance provided was “consistent with the parliamentary business resources regulations”.

Jonathon Duniam received assistance totalling $10,426 for two matters in May 2021, which relate to apologies he made to Bob Brown and Sarah Hanson-Young, for false and defamatory comments claiming Hanson-Young’s niece was put in harm’s way at an anti-logging rally.

A further $17,950 was spent for Joe Ludwig, the former Labor agriculture minister, due to long-running compensation claims for the suspension of the live cattle trade with Indonesia.

Karen Andrews, the former home affairs minister, received approval for an application on 4 March 2022.

On 10 January 2022, former finance minister Simon Birmingham approved funding for two separate claims against Cash.

Former health minister Greg Hunt received approval on 3 March 2022.

In July and August, Dreyfus approved legal assistance for Murray Watt, Barnaby Joyce and David Littleproud in relation to the same claim for damages relating to equine influenza programs.

Matt Keogh, Andrew Gee and Darren Chester have been approved for legal assistance in relation to the royal commission into defence and veteran suicide. Morrison also received approval for legal costs for that royal commission.

In 2021 Peter Dutton proposed that politicians should be eligible for public funding to defend defamation claims, but Labor shot down the idea.