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On April 5, 2019, nearly two weeks after allegedly raping colleague Brittany Higgins in the parliamentary office of his then-employer, defence industry minister Linda Reynolds, Bruce Lehrmann wrote Reynolds a grovelling letter of apology.
Not for the alleged sexual assault – which he continues to deny – but for a range of other misdemeanours he had committed in the preceding days, including mishandling of a classified document, unauthorised access to the ministerial suite (he’d falsely told security that he needed to return to the building to pick up documents for the minister) and for failing to comply with directions from Reynolds’ chief of staff about the manner of his exit from the job.
Bruce Lehrmann returns to the Federal Court during his defamation trial this week.Credit: Kate Geraghty
The letter, referred to in evidence this week during Lehrmann’s defamation proceedings against Network Ten and TV journalist and interviewer Lisa Wilkinson, contains several falsehoods, which he admitted under cross-examination.
But it’s his pitch towards the end of the email that strikes the oddest note, as the staffer sought to flatter and find common ground with the boss who was about to fire him (even though, as he told the court this week, he’d already decided to leave).
“You have been the sixth boss I have worked for in my time in Parliament and I maintain you have been the best,” he wrote. “Not only are you the first Minister I have worked for that actually takes a deep and abiding interest in the portfolio’s (sic) you hold but you genuinely care how you can make the nation a better place to live, its (sic) not just words. I only regret not picking your brains more and seeking your mentorship on how to be a staffer, as I know like me you also began at a very young age”.
Nearly five years on from that bitterly contested night in Parliament House, it’s salutary to recall how young the two key figures at the centre of this drama were at the time of Lehrmann’s alleged assault: he still only 23, Higgins a few months older.
They barely knew each other when they became colleagues in early March 2019. It was a time when there was a febrile atmosphere in Coalition ranks. Most staffers were expecting the Coalition to lose the approaching election, and a number of senior ministers were deserting Scott Morrison’s ship, with a knock-on effect among those who remained.
The abrupt departure of defence industry minister Steven Ciobo – for whom Higgins was then working – prompted Morrison to reach into the outer ministry and promote Reynolds, then assistant minister for home affairs, to take Ciobo’s place. Lehrmann came across with Reynolds.
There was a degree of chaos – and a whiff of Hunger Games – as staff from the two offices merged, with those from Ciobo’s office hustling for places in the new staffing line-up under Reynolds.
Brittany Higgins leaves the Federal Court in Sydney on Friday.Credit: James Brickwood
Higgins had already connected over Instagram with Nicky Hamer, then Reynolds’ senior press secretary, who invited her to drinks on March 2 – the day Reynolds was sworn into her new role. At those drinks, Higgins also became acquainted with Lehrmann for the first time. And she impressed Hamer, who appears to have recommended her to Reynolds because by early the following week Higgins was in Reynolds’ office in the assistant media adviser’s job.
Lehrmann had significantly more parliamentary experience than Higgins. As he would later tell police, during the time he had worked for Reynolds in home affairs, he’d been “signing for the ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Organisation] briefs and the Home Affairs briefs”, he had all the “relevant clearances … we had counter-terrorism … we had emergency management”. He also told them he had been “liaising with, you know, your commissioner at the AFP [Australian Federal Police]” and that a former director general of ASIO, Paul O’Sullivan, was a “close confidant”.
But in the new, expanded office, he was negotiating a whole new pecking order.
He recalled this week that it had been “tense”, bringing “two offices that didn’t know each other together”. Higgins, too, told Justice Michael Lee that there were a “lot of egos competing”, that people were “unsure” about their futures and jobs, and “it was a mess, pretty much” for the first couple of weeks.
She was focused on working her way up from an administrative role, desperate to be taken seriously as an assistant media adviser, and dreaming one day of becoming a “press secretary” in her own right.
She told the court this week that Lehrmann had treated her “like his secretary”, giving her menial tasks, such as changing the order in which he appeared on an internal phone list, a job that cost her a full day’s effort.
By the time the night of March 22 came around, they had been in their new roles for around three weeks, “treading water until the election” in Higgins’ words.
She began that fateful evening, a Friday, with a glass of wine at home to settle her nerves, as she was expecting to meet up with a date arranged via the Bumble app. She headed for a popular Canberra watering hole, The Dock, where social drinks with defence liaison staff had been organised by another former Ciobo staffer, Lauren Gain. Higgins told the court she saw it as a “networking opportunity” and invited some of her new colleagues from Reynolds office – including Lehrmann – because “I was trying to show that I was not just a receptionist”.
CCTV showing Bruce Lehrmann and Brittany Higgins at The Dock in Canberra on March 22, 2019.Credit: Spotlight, Channel Seven
In the early part of the evening, she testified this week, Lehrmann had been “the nicest he had ever been to me”: “I felt like I was no longer his secretary, I felt like an equal, and I appreciated that, it felt like we were peers, almost”.
Over the course of the evening, Higgins agreed she consumed 11 vodka-based drinks at The Dock. Reviewing the CCTV footage from the bar and terrace area that night, Network Ten’s silk, Matthew Collins KC, put to Lehrmann that he appeared to be ensuring she had a drink at hand most of the evening. This he denied. But Higgins said she became the most inebriated she’d ever been, “completely obliterated”. (Collins has foreshadowed expert evidence that Higgins most likely had a blood alcohol level five times the legal limit by the time the night was done).
Towards midnight, most of the group at The Dock headed for home, but Lehrmann, Higgins, Gain and another staffer for Peter Dutton, Austin Wenke, decided to “kick on” to a Canberra nightclub, 88 mph. Higgins says Lehrmann was “handsy”, touching her on the thighs, which she tolerated. He denies any sort of physical intimacy with her. More drinks were consumed before Lehrmann and Higgins got into an Uber at around 1.30 am and left for Parliament House.
CCTV footage of Bruce Lehrmann and Brittany Higgins at Parliament House on the night of the alleged rape.
Lehrmann has offered four different reasons – in several different forums – for heading to Parliament House at such an unlikely hour. He told his chief of staff it was to consume whisky, he told security staff he had to pick up ministerial documents, he told police he had to pick up his keys, and he’s also insisted he went to work on briefs to prepare the minister for her first question time in the portfolio. It’s unclear what that work involved. In court this week, he suggested it concerned the submarine program. He told police it concerned “some of the industry programs, particularly in the air force”.
Lehrmann claimed Higgins said she needed to go back to Parliament House too, which is why they arrived together. But she says the evening had become a blur, and she had no reason to be there, that in fact she thought she was going home.
Neither had their parliamentary passes with them when they got dropped near the after-hours ministerial entrance. Lehrmann buzzed the security intercom for access, using the excuse that he was there on business for the minister. Once inside, they were escorted along the hushed, deserted corridors to Reynolds’ ministerial suite, where a security officer left them at the door.
Lehrmann would exit around 45 minutes later, claiming neither to have seen nor spoken to Higgins again that evening, after he turned towards his desk to begin work on the question time folders – an account he has stuck to doggedly despite this week’s withering cross-examination from Ten’s Collins.
Higgins, for her part, is not deviating from the distressing account she has delivered in court this week: of waking in the early hours of Saturday morning to find Lehrmann, allegedly grunting and sweating on top of her, her legs forced apart, her white cocktail dress rucked up around her midriff, her efforts to scream trapped in her throat as he ignored her pleas to stop.
She, too, has endured intense cross-examination from Lehrmann’s barrister, Steven Whybrow SC, over the last two days, having to admit error on some details, accept she lied about a doctor’s visit in the days after the alleged assault, and defend her motives for striking a $325,000 book deal and going to the media – against police advice – in advance of Lehrmann being charged in 2021. She also denied that part of her intention was to impact the looming election. The book, she told the court this week, was on hold. She added, “I might never want to do this again”.
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