CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses an alleged sexual assault.
Senator Linda Reynolds has admitted she tried to get transcripts of Brittany Higgins’ evidence after the trial began against her alleged rapist.
Senator Reynolds was repeatedly challenged on Monday (17 October) when called to testify in the ACT Supreme Court trial of Bruce Lehrmann. He is accused of raping Ms Higgins in Senator Reynolds’ office at Parliament House on 23 March 2019.
Under questioning from Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold SC, she admitted that about two hours into Ms Higgins’ cross-examination on 6 October 2022, she texted Mr Lehrmann’s lawyers and asked if they could send her lawyer the daily transcripts of the trial.
Mr Drumgold suggested Senator Reynolds, who was Ms Higgins’ boss at the time of the alleged rape, had an interest in the transcripts.
“Yes, I did ask for them, but it was explained to me it was not appropriate to make that request and they were not sent,” she said, admitting she was aware Ms Higgins’ cross-examination had begun at the time.
Shortly after that text, she sent another message that said if the lawyers had the text messages between Brittany and her friend Nicole Hamer they may or may not be “revealing”.
Mr Drumgold asked her what she was trying to do, questioning if she was “injecting” herself into the case, but Senator Reynolds said she had never gone through a process like this before and “it seemed appropriate”.
He pushed her further, asking why she thought it was appropriate to give “cross-examination tips”, but she answered that there was never any suggestion it was inappropriate for her to talk to either him or the defence lawyers.
Senator Reynolds also admitted that her partner, who lives in Perth, had been in court during the trial but denied talking to him about the evidence.
She said on 26 March 2019 her chief of staff Fiona Brown told her about a “serious security breach”, which was the first time she learned Ms Higgins and Mr Lehrmann had entered her ministerial suite late that night.
She said she received more information on 27 March, flew back to Perth for two days that night, and then decided to meet with Ms Higgins on 1 April 2019, but claimed she still knew very little by then.
During this meeting, Senator Reynolds said she raised the security breach and Ms Higgins said she knew it was “not the right thing to do and she did not want to lose her job”.
She claimed Ms Higgins told her she was very drunk and couldn’t remember much of what happened but woke up in the morning and “got dressed”.
“That’s when I said to her, as her boss … I’m not the person to be having a conversation with,” she said and recommended she speak to the Australian Federal Police.
Senator Reynolds said it was after the comment about getting dressed that she became aware the allegations could be of a sexual nature.
In cross-examination, she said she received a lot of new information about the allegations when stories were published by journalist Samantha Maiden and The Project in 2021.
She said she never said Ms Higgins’ job would be at risk if she went to police, and on the day before Ms Higgins’ left her job she gave her flowers.
Senator Michaelia Cash also testified on Monday, during which Mr Drumgold suggested she had detailed conversations with Ms Higgins about the sexual element of her allegations while she employed her and well before February 2021.
Senator Cash repeatedly denied this, saying she always remembered the incident being a “security breach”.
Mr Drumgold asked if it would be “politically embarrassing” to the government if one staffer assaulted another staffer on a lounge in a minister’s office.
“Absolutely not,” she replied.
“I don’t know how it would be politically embarrassing. It would be something that would need to be attended to.
“I just don’t understand the political connection to this.”
Mr Drumgold suggested she was “denying” she knew of the sexual element to the allegations as early as October 2019 because it would be “politically embarrassing”.
“Absolutely not,” Senator Cash said.
Under cross-examination from barrister Steven Whybrow, she said it would have been “political suicide” to try to “cover up” an alleged sexual assault between staffers.
Senator Cash said Ms Higgins started working for her as a media adviser in mid-2019 and it was not until February 2021 that she learned of her assault allegation after Ms Higgins resigned “out of the blue”.
But she did say she spoke to her employee in October 2019 after an inquiry from The Canberra Times about what she called a “security breach” in Senator Reynolds’ office when Ms Higgins worked for her.
Senator Cash said Ms Higgins was “embarrassed” as the inquiry involved herself. She said Ms Higgins told her that she and another staffer had been out drinking, went back to Senator Reynolds’ office where she fell asleep on the couch and was found by security the next day.
Senator Cash couldn’t recall if she spoke to Senator Reynolds about this inquiry. Also, Senator Cash, who appeared before the jury over audio-visual link, said the first time she heard the word “rape” in relation to the allegations was in questions from journalist Ms Maiden in February 2021.
Daniel Try, Senator Cash’s chief of staff, had also spoken to Ms Higgins after the inquiry from The Canberra Times in October 2019 and claimed he heard it involved a security incident but didn’t hear the full story.
“She also said quite emphatically this was taken care of at the time and she didn’t want to go any further,” he said.
Mr Try said after the October 2019 meeting, Senator Cash had hugged Ms Higgins and they made sure she knew she’d be supported. He didn’t think anything more came from the media inquiry.
Sam O’Conner, MP for Bonney in Queensland, also gave evidence. He said he was close in age to Ms Higgins and they spoke quite regularly.
He said he became aware there had been an incident in Senator Reynolds’ office in late March 2019, and then that April she told him it had been “a super f-ked up thing that happened”.
Mr O’Conner said she was worried about the incident becoming public and its impact on her.
“I definitely remember her being concerned this would define her,” he said, also saying she was worried about its impact on her job and her working in politics.
The trial, in which 27-year-old Mr Lehrmann has pleaded not guilty to a charge of sexual intercourse without consent, continues before Chief Justice Lucy McCallum.