For part of Tuesday and Wednesday this week, a packed Canberra courtroom sat in silence. Jury, journalists, lawyers, and curious members of the public watched as the prosecution played a video recorded in May last year.
It was the second of two interviews with former federal ministerial staffer Brittany Higgins, during which police showed her closed-circuit camera vision of her arrival early on a Saturday morning at Parliament House, where she alleges she was then raped.
The CCTV footage had no audio and was not visible to those in court. Among them was the man she was with at parliament that night and who she says subsequently assaulted her, former senior colleague Bruce Lehrmann.
Lehrmann busied himself writing in a leather-bound notebook, eyes down, as the police video showed Higgins viewing the 2019 footage for the first time and gradually, silently, beginning to cry. Lehrmann is facing one charge of sexual intercourse without consent and being reckless as to whether consent had been given. He has pleaded not guilty.
Lehrmann denies what Higgins says occurred sometime after 1.45am on March 23, 2019, when she passed out on the couch in their boss’s ministerial office. They agree they shared a cab from a Canberra nightclub after drinking with colleagues and, on the way to separate south-side homes, stopped at Parliament House at Lehrmann’s request. They do not agree about what happened after that.
Up to 58 witnesses could be called during a trial set down for six weeks. They include former minister Linda Reynolds, for whom Higgins and Lehrmann then both worked, former minister Michaelia Cash, Daniel Wong, who was an adviser to then prime minister Scott Morrison, and John Kunkel, who was Morrison’s chief-of-staff. Journalists Samantha Maiden and Lisa Wilkinson, who first reported in the media the alleged assault, are also on the witness list.
In Tuesday’s opening arguments, Crown prosecutor Shane Drumgold, SC, and defence barrister Stephen Whybrow outlined two very different perspectives on the events at the end of that long Friday night out, and since.
The prosecutor suggested Lehrmann had given inconsistent explanations and lied about why he wanted to go to Parliament House. He said the evidence “will come down to the complainant saying that sex occurred and the accused saying it did not occur”.
Whybrow said it was Higgins whose evidence was conflicting and that the jury would find “massive inconsistencies and holes in the version of events that she gave to police”.
When cross-examination began on Thursday afternoon, Whybrow challenged Higgins’ version.
In court earlier that day, she had been shown a photograph of the dress she wore on the night, a white fitted cocktail dress with thin straps and a square neckline. She said that, initially, she had preserved it.
“I kept it under my bed in a plastic bag for a good six months,” she said. “Untouched. Uncleaned. I just had it there. I wasn’t sure of all the party political stuff – how I could proceed [with a police complaint] … without losing my job. I kept it there. It was like this weird anchor for me.”
Then she said she changed her mind. “Once it became clear I couldn’t proceed and keep my job, I very symbolically washed the dress. And I wore it once more.”
Whybrow showed the court a photograph of her wearing the dress just weeks after the alleged incident and days before the May 2019 federal election, at a Liberal Party function in Perth.
“I made a mistake,” she told him, of her six-months estimate. “… I was just wrong.”
She said she had worn the dress to take control. “Honestly, I think I was reclaiming my agency,” she said, telling the court that it was “kind of an empowerment thing”.
Whybrow grilled Higgins on secret recordings she made in 2021 of conversations with both minister Michaelia Cash, for whom she was then working, and Cash’s chief-of-staff. Higgins had provided the latter conversation to Samantha Maiden to prove she was telling the truth.
Whybrow also suggested police had warned Higgins about going to the media before undertaking police interviews.
Earlier, the jury was shown video of the two police interviews, from February 24 and May 26 last year. In the interviews, Higgins gave a graphic account of what she remembers occurring in Linda Reynolds’ office that night in 2019.
She rated her intoxication level at 10 out of 10 by night’s end. She had met colleagues, including Lehrmann, at a bar called The Dock, where CCTV showed her consuming 11 drinks in about four-and-a-half hours, some of which Lehrmann bought for her. From there, Higgins, Lehrmann and two others had gone on to the 88mph nightclub in Canberra city, and had more drinks, including shots. It was, she said, the most drunk she had ever been since celebrating the end of high school. As the four were leaving, she fell and he helped her up. They agreed to share a ride to Canberra’s southern suburbs.
Parliament House was on the way, and she recalled Lehrmann saying he needed to stop there to pick something up. Her memory, she said, was patchy.
On Thursday, the court was played audio from the security intercom. Lehrmann is heard identifying himself. “I’ve been requested to pick up some documents. I’ve forgotten my pass. Just at the ministerial entrance.”
The guard opened the door. CCTV footage shows the pair going through security, Higgins removing her shoes and then carrying them, unable to get them back on.
A guard escorted them to the ministerial suite and let them in. Higgins said she thought Lehrmann went to his own internal office and she sat on a window ledge and then lay down on the minister’s couch. She didn’t know if she had been guided there.
She said she woke up with Lehrmann on top of her, his knee pinning her left leg open and her dress bunched above her waist. “I was sort of wedged into the corner of the couch,” she said in the interview. “He had his knee on my thigh … I was stuck in the corner, and I couldn’t get him off me.” She said she was crying and that he was sweaty. “I said ‘no’ at least half a dozen times. He did not stop. He kept going. To my knowledge, he finished but I’m not exactly sure.”
When it ended, she remembered him “maybe” getting dressed. “I do remember that he got up and he looked at me and it was a strange moment of just eye contact. I didn’t say anything. He didn’t say anything. Then he left the room.”
During questioning in court, Higgins was shown a photograph she took several days later of a bruise on her leg. There was confusion over which leg it showed.
The prosecutor canvassed the nature of her relationship with Lehrmann. She had been working for Reynolds for three weeks at the time, after her former boss left the ministry suddenly, and Reynolds took over his Defence Services portfolio. Higgins had invited her new colleagues to join a group from her old job for Friday night drinks. They thought the Coalition would lose the election, she said. “That was sort of why we were all drinking so much.”
In her first police interview, she described having “sort of a strange adversarial relationship” with Lehrmann. She told police he was a similar age but senior to her and would sometimes be nice but that he would also ask her to manage things outside her job. She did what he asked. “The disparity between him and me was huge.”
Three months later, police put new information to her.
“We have a witness from 88 [the nightclub] who says that they saw you and Bruce kissing,” the police officer said. “Do you have any recollection of that?”
“No,” she replied.
The officers asked if there was anything else she wanted to add. She said that in her first weeks in the office Lehrmann had “made a pass” and tried to kiss her. “I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. And I just rebuffed him. So I wasn’t interested.”
She said he accepted that. “And we never really talked about it again.”
The court heard that on the night of the alleged assault Lehrmann left the building, alone, at 2.33am. Security guards checked on Higgins through the night. She said she woke in the morning, cried, ate a box of chocolates she found in the office, threw up in the ensuite bathroom, borrowed one of Reynolds’ jackets that was with some clothes to be donated to charity, and left. Security footage showed this was 10.01am.
On the way home, she spoke to her ex-boyfriend Ben Dillaway, glossing over details of how the night ended. Through the weekend, she responded to work emails from Lehrmann. She said she spent Sunday in her room, crying. At work on the Monday, Lehrmann bought her a coffee. The weekend events were not discussed.
Three days after the alleged incident, in a text message exchange with Dillaway, she divulged more details. He suggested she might need to report it to police. Higgins said she was concerned about her job.
During Thursday’s evidence, Higgins said Reynolds’ acting chief-of-staff, Fiona Brown, had called Lehrmann into her office on the Tuesday following the incident and that he had packed up his desk immediately and left. Brown then called Higgins in. Brown knew they had entered the building after hours.
Higgins said she disclosed the alleged assault – she had not, at that stage, used the word “rape” – and that it hit her suddenly “like a ton of bricks”. She said Brown was sympathetic initially but within days it became “political”.
Brown and Reynolds called her to a meeting in the room where the assault was alleged to have occurred and pressured her not to pursue the matter. She thought the location was “an intimidation tactic”.
Higgins told the prosecutor they had been “concerned” she might go to police. “They stated that they wanted to know if I went to the police, and they mentioned the election. I had a certain interpretation of what those things meant.”
Higgins told police she didn’t go to a doctor for weeks – she wasn’t sure when – and didn’t have a rape examination. Under defence questioning, she was uncertain about timing and said she had repeatedly cancelled appointments.
When she had eventually seen a doctor, it was to address anxiety, not about her physical health. She said she paid cash.
Two years after the alleged events, and after she’d quit her job with Cash, she formally spoke to police. “It was terrifying,” she said of coming forward. “So I made it, you know, in hindsight, I made it a lot harder for myself to verify.”
In the interview, she started to cry again. “I was so stupid.”
The trial continues.
National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 8, 2022 as "Lehrmann on trial".
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