In the three months from March 2019, the office of Linda Reynolds, the newly sworn in defence industry minister, was a hive of security breaches, staffing feuds and problem drinking.
At the centre of most of this, the Federal Court in Sydney has heard, was Bruce Lehrmann, a policy adviser other staff remember as “kind of lazy” and “an idiot”.
Lehrmann is now suing Network Ten and The Project presenter Lisa Wilkinson for defamation after the program aired allegations he raped Brittany Higgins in Parliament House on the morning of March 23, 2019, a claim he strenuously denies.
In many ways, however, this story begins three weeks earlier, on March 2.
Linda Reynolds had only just had her elevation to the defence industry portfolio approved by the governor-general when some of her staff, who had attended the ceremony, went out to lunch at an Italian restaurant across from the Kingston Hotel in Canberra. There were drinks.
Afterwards, media adviser Nicky Hamer and policy advisers Jesse Wotton and Bruce Lehrmann ducked over to the “Kingo” for more drinks. Here, the trio talked about who might be coming across to join from the office of Reynolds’s predecessor, Steven Ciobo.
“And then we were talking about who that might be and Bruce made a comment about Brittany being good looking and asked me if I knew her,” Hamer told the court on Wednesday morning.
“I had Brittany on Instagram at the time, although I’d never met Brittany before, and he asked me just to see if she was free to pop down to the pub.”
Higgins, who had been working in Ciobo’s office but who now needed another job, came to the pub under the proviso she could only stay for a short time as she was going to the night noodle markets with her flatmate. Wotton recalls Lehrmann told him, while they played pool, that he had asked Higgins to come to the pub.
When she later tried to leave, Hamer gave evidence that Lehrmann “took her phone away as a bit of play” so Higgins “couldn’t use it herself to book an Uber”. Both Lehrmann and Wotton urged Higgins to “stay for one more drink”, but she said she was already running late.
“It wasn’t a huge amount of time,” Hamer told the court. “Kind of a minute or two.”
The exchange angered Hamer. She didn’t like the way the two men were pressuring Higgins. Wotton gave evidence that Hamer told Lehrmann to “Shut the fuck up.” She then turned on Wotton, telling him to “Shut the fuck up.”
Hamer had, according to Wotton, suggested that Higgins felt she needed to stay for a drink in order to receive a job in Linda Reynolds’s office. Wotton was “passionate” in his rejection of that assertion. Hamer only recalled an argument with Lehrmann.
“Basically, Bruce said that I’d overreacted in the way I kind of spoke up and tried to defend Brittany, and so then I got quite defensive to that,” Hamer said.
“It was something along the lines of me always being a feminist and feeling like I have to go and defend women.”
Hamer, who was already unhappy at work, left the Kingston Hotel that night, called her father from an Uber, and then sent an email about 9.30pm to Linda Reynolds informing her she was going to quit her job.
All three were hauled before the minister the next day, a Sunday, to explain what had happened. The meeting took place at Parliament House. Wotton remembers a phone call with Lehrmann the next evening, when both discussed the fact they were “very unhappy” with how Reynolds had handled the issue.
“She disagreed with my version of events, or my take on them,” Wotton said on Wednesday.
“She believed that those events put her in a very difficult position in terms of whether or not Ms Higgins ultimately ended up with the job in her office.”
It was an inauspicious start in the new portfolio. Of course, Higgins did get the job.
Over the coming weeks, incidents piled up. Most of these involved internal tensions and the now well-recorded security breach by Lehrmann on March 20, which happened just days before the night at the centre of the rape allegation made by Higgins.
Justice Michael Lee heard evidence on Wednesday about the night of drinking on March 22, 2019, involving Defence Department staff and ministerial advisers from both Linda Reynolds’s office and the office of the then minister for home affairs, Peter Dutton.
The group started at The Dock, where Higgins invited a man she had met on the dating app Bumble to attend for drinks. Giving evidence this week, Higgins conceded she had been “rude” to him and left him alone while she talked Queensland electoral politics with Lehrmann and Dutton adviser Austin Wenke.
Footage of this night at The Dock – played at speed by Lehrmann’s counsel, Steven Whybrow, SC – must have been viewed “more times by now than the Zapruder film [of the John F. Kennedy assassination]”, Justice Lee said.
Lehrmann, Higgins, Wenke and a former temporary Ciobo staffer who had returned to the Defence Department, Lauren Gain, went to the 88mph club, where they continued drinking. Gain gave evidence on Wednesday that she saw Lehrmann and Higgins being quite “touchy” with one another before later seeing them kiss.
“I remember his hands on her thighs and her hands on his thighs,” she said.
“I observed them kiss. It was a real kiss. I’m not sure how to describe it beyond it went for a period of time, so it wasn’t a peck.”
Gain, who had earlier testified that she thought Lehrmann was an “idiot” for apparently making up a job interview with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and telling her about it, which she said a real candidate would never do, shared a taxi home with Wenke.
The next day, on March 23, she sent a message via Telegram to Linda Reynolds’s then aide-de-camp, Nikita Irvine: “Brittany hooked up with Bruce.”
Lehrmann has always denied any sexual contact with Higgins and denies he raped her in the early hours of March 23, 2019. A criminal trial was abandoned due to juror misconduct and Lehrmann has never been convicted of any crime.
Beginning last week, Higgins has spent almost five days on the stand under examination and cross-examination as part of Lehrmann’s defamation proceedings. There were several revelations in her testimony, including that she received $1.9 million from a $2.3 million settlement with the Commonwealth for a “breach of its duty of care”.
Even that revelation was upended late on Thursday when Justice Lee ordered the production of the deed of settlement between the Commonwealth and Higgins because her evidence appeared to be inconsistent “with the truth of the matter”, specifically that there was no admission by the Australian government that it breached its duty of care.
After some fraught legal argument, in which Whybrow threatened to recall Higgins for further examination and then dropped the idea, the deed was released with redactions to a section headed “particulars of disabilities”. These were “personal and private” medical details irrelevant to the case, Justice Lee said, but Higgins’s testimony had made the rest of it fair game. Higgins’s payout figure was actually $2.4 million and the document, dated December 13 last year, confirmed it was offered after a single day of mediation preventing Higgins from any future action against the Commonwealth but with a specific carve-out that would allow her to bring claims against both senators Linda Reynolds and Michaelia Cash in some circumstances.
Earlier in the week towards the end of her cross-examination, Lehrmann’s barrister suggested the speech Higgins gave outside court after the trial was aborted on October 27, 2022, was “designed to blow up a retrial”.
“I had just gone through a criminal trial,” Higgins said. “I wasn’t hiding from anyone.”
Then ACT director of public prosecutions Shane Drumgold said the case would not be tried again due to Higgins’s deteriorating mental health. Whybrow queried this, asking why Higgins was posting public messages about her willingness to defend any civil or defamation matter.
“The decision to go ahead wasn’t mine to make,” Higgins said. “It was the doctors and the DPP and I wasn’t in well health and so I had to accept that decision.
“But I wanted him to know that I would not let my rapist become a millionaire for being a rapist, so I said that I would do it, and I’m here.”
Whybrow asked what medical advice was provided to the DPP for them to make that decision.
“It would have been, I know that in the midst of the trial, I tried to commit suicide,” Higgins said.
At the mention of the word “suicide”, however, Whybrow cut her off.
“I asked you whether you were aware of any medical evidence being provided,” he said. “You accept as a matter of fact that you’ve made money off being a person who made an allegation of sexual assault.”
Higgins said: “That’s true.”
Whybrow then suggested she had “significant financial, reputational and ‘brand’ interests” directly linked to the allegation.
“There’s never been any finding as to whether or not your allegations are true or not,” he said.
Whybrow queried how drunk Higgins really was when she attempted to pass through security screening point 8 in the ministerial wing of Parliament House, asking her to concede that her report she was “10 out of 10 drunk … was a lie”.
“Are you kidding,” she said, before correcting herself: “Sorry. No, I was very drunk. I hadn’t been raped yet but I was skipping in the middle of parliament with no shoes on, so it indicates someone is pretty drunk, yes.”
Evidence tendered to the court revealed messages between Lehrmann and his confidants about how The Project episode, aired on February 15, 2021, was affecting him.
When the story first broke, Liberal Party fixer John Macgowan texted Lehrmann to ask: “You got any god [sic] on who the Canberra rape guy is?”
Lehrmann said he had “no idea, not in the slightest”, before adding he “hadn’t had any approaches despite still being around then”.
Macgowan responded: “Yarn didn’t make it clear bloke was in that office.”
Lehrmann messaged back: “Oh right.”
The day after the interview aired, Lehrmann checked himself into a mental health ward before transferring to a private clinic. Here, he took advice from his “father figure”, a multilevel marketer from Toowoomba named Lyndon Biernoff.
“Fight hard, fight clever, home [sic] your nerve. You’ve got a big future ahead of you,” Biernoff wrote on February 16.
The following day, he continued. “Things are starting to get crazy, that’s to be expected but this will all turn 180 degrees quite soon.
“Cracks are showing in the allegations, plus the energy is being focused on her real intentions of making a concocted story rather than dealing with the alleged incident. Stay strong and bring your A game with your lawyer.”
Biernoff was pushing Lehrmann to go to the media and do an “interview”, if his lawyers agreed. On February 21, 2021, Biernoff messaged a news article with the headline: “A third woman has come forward claiming rape by the same man as Brittany 5 years ago”.
Biernoff suggested these mounting allegations were “good news” stories.
“Just gold,” he said.
Days later, Lehrmann turned his attention to Higgins’s partner, David Sharaz.
“Notice how he is trying to trend ‘victim-survivor’ as a new tag much like how make [sic] and female are now she/her or he/him,” Lehrmann said. “Very woke.”
On Thursday, Nikita Irvine gave evidence that she had “bad vibes on Bruce” in the early days of the office.
“It’s women’s intuition, I’m sorry, Dr Collins,” she said to Network Ten’s barrister, Matt Collins, KC. “I just didn’t really want to spend time with him.”
Days after The Project interview aired, while Lehrmann was still in a mental institution, his then girlfriend messaged him.
“Nothing happened,” she wrote. “But I don’t know if I can continue our relationship.”
The trial continues.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "Kind of lazy and an idiot: the Bruce Lehrmann trial".
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