CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses an alleged sexual assault.
Jurors have heard Brittany Higgins discuss Parliament House culture, like the “haphazard” communication in the minister’s office where she was a staffer, as well as her “adversarial” working relationship with Bruce Lehrmann.
Part of an interview recorded with police was played when the trial against Mr Lehrmann, who is accused of raping her at Parliament House on 23 March 2019, began in the ACT Supreme Court earlier this week. The footage continued to be screened on Wednesday (5 October).
“He was trying to carve out space in the new office and was kind of territorial about new people coming in,” she said in the recording on 24 February 2021.
She said she was an admin and media assistant who did “grunt work” around the office, while Mr Lehrmann was the most senior adviser at the time with then-Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds.
“The disparity between me and him was huge,” she said.
“He was nice to some sometimes … but at the same time, he would demand me to do all these things outside my job.
“He was someone that I perceived to be above me in station so I did what was asked.”
She said the first time she met him was after she heard her former boss, Defence Industries Minister Steven Ciobo, was leaving politics and Ms Reyonds was getting the Defence portfolio, which meant she would lose her job.
“For me, this was my entire life. I’d found a door into Parliament, I was not leaving,” Ms Higgins said.
She met with Ms Reynolds’ media adviser, meeting Mr Lehrmann in the process, and ended up “kind of getting” a media role she was after with the new Defence Minister, but also did admin work.
But there was tension in the workplace in general, she said. It was a bad time as staff had to reapply for their jobs due to the change in ministers and there were a lot of egos in the room trying to carve out a space as the most important adviser.
In a later interview, recorded on 26 May 2021, a police officer asked her about communication in Ms Reynolds’ office, which she described as “haphazard” and informal.
“It was just like a bunch of 28-year-olds running around the office. That was the style of the office. It was weird,” she said.
She was also asked about the liaising work she and Mr Lehrmann had done. She said she was involved in admin and handing over media briefs while Mr Lehrmann would “boss me around, essentially”.
She said that was the “pecking order” and “Yes, Minister mentality” of the offices.
On the night of the alleged rape, the then-24-year-old Ms Higgins and Mr Lehrmann had moved from The Dock in Kingston to the nightclub 88mph in Civic along with two others, Austin Wenke and Lauren Gain, where she said she was “very, very drunk”.
She fell over, grazed her knee and Mr Lehrmann helped her back up, she said in the first police interview.
“I just thought we were getting to a point where it was a better relationship because it had been quite adversarial,” Ms Higgins said.
She said the alleged rape was “rough” and “everything about it was forceful”. It allegedly made her feel “trapped, not human. It didn’t feel like it was about me at all”.
The Monday afterwards, she said both she and Mr Lehrmann were in the office, which was “strange”.
She said she was still dealing with the shock and trauma and wanted everything to be normal so was “broadly nice” to him, but they didn’t discuss the alleged incident.
The next day, Mr Lehrmann was called into a meeting with their chief of staff, Fiona Brown, after which he started packing his desk and left, Ms Higgins said.
She also had a meeting with Ms Brown and said that was when she first vocalised what allegedly happened to her.
“That was the first moment it fully hit me in a way I identified it as rape,” she said, although later clarified she didn’t say ‘rape’ at the time but called it an alleged ‘assault’.
Ms Higgins also said she spoke about the alleged incident with many people before going public, including Ms Reynolds and Senator Michaelia Cash.
The interview with Ms Higgins from May 2021 was held because police said they wanted to “clarify” some points from their investigation.
In this recording, she said her memory of alleged events that night was limited, but she had been told information by other people. What happened at 88mph onwards was informed by what others told her, she said.
She said she didn’t see a doctor until after the May 2019 election, and even then the visit was more about her mental health than physical health. But she did get a pregnancy test when she was in Perth.
A police officer said a witness at 88mph claimed to have seen her kissing Mr Lehrmann, but she said she didn’t recall that.
She did raise an alleged incident at a gathering of “the Reynolds team” after she started working with them, in which she claimed Mr Lehrmann had tried to kiss her, but she rebuffed him and they didn’t speak about it again.
It didn’t feel like a big deal at the time, she said, partly as others in parliament had made passes at her before.
Ms Higgins arrived in the courtroom to give her evidence in person towards the end of the day, during which closed-circuit television footage started to be played of her meeting a group of people for drinks at The Dock on 22 March 2019 where Mr Lehrmann joined them.
Mr Lehrmann has pleaded not guilty to a charge of sexual intercourse without consent. The trial is held before Chief Justice Lucy McCallum.