Brittany Higgins was “really personally hurt” by the way Senator Linda Reynolds and the Liberal party “abandoned” her after she disclosed she had been sexually assaulted in the minister’s office, the federal court has heard.
Bruce Lehrmann has brought a defamation case against Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson over an interview with Higgins on Ten’s The Project in which she alleged she was raped by a Liberal staffer in Parliament House. Network Ten and Wilkinson are defending the case.
In her first full day of testimony, Higgins was emotional as she recounted in graphic detail her alleged rape by Lehrmann in March 2019 on the couch in Reynolds’ office, as well as the deterioration of her relationship with her employer after she reported the incident.
Lehrmann has denied raping Higgins and pleaded not guilty to a charge of sexual intercourse without consent. His criminal trial was abandoned due to juror misconduct and the second did not proceed due to prosecutors’ fears for Higgins’ mental health.
Network Ten’s barrister Matt Collins asked Higgins to explain her state of mind when she sent a text message in May to a friend saying her anger “should be aimed at Bruce” but she feels “so pissed at the people in the party”.
“I should be angry at Bruce for the assault, but in my mind, Bruce was a bad person who did a bad thing,” Higgins explained.
“I was really personally hurt by all these people that I loved, or, you know, worked with, that in my time of need when something horrendous happened, all these good people did nothing. And so I was so … I can’t explain how hurt I was that I was just abandoned like that.”
Higgins said Reynolds’ chief of staff, Fiona Brown, was initially sympathetic when Higgins told her what had happened, saying she was “completely inebriated” and “I remember him [Bruce] on top of me”.
Higgins said: “She … used the words ‘Oh, god’.”
“I was really hysterical crying at that point. And she gave me tissues.
“And it was the first time I’d ever disclosed the rape to someone,” Higgins said of her first meeting with Brown. “I didn’t use the word rape in that first meeting. It was like a confronting word. But I said … that I was assaulted and I said he was on top of me.”
But Higgins said Brown’s tone markedly changed when she had a second meeting with her.
Higgins said she reported the alleged rape to the Australian federal police on the same day she met with Reynolds, a meeting which took place next to the couch where she alleges the rape took place.
“It was so glaringly obvious to me,” Higgins said. “I didn’t think it needed to be pointed out. We’re talking about … the assault that had happened in the minister’s office while being in the minister’s office.
“Right next to the couch I had been assaulted on. I don’t understand how they didn’t put those two things together.”
On 13 April she sent an email to the police withdrawing her complaint against Lehrmann and thanking them for helping her.
Higgins told the court she withdrew the complaint because of workplace demands on her during the 2019 federal election campaign.
Higgins said she eventually accepted a position in Perth but said she was isolated and suicidal and she felt Reynolds avoided her.
“She actively avoided me and didn’t even like being in a room with me,” Higgins told the court.
“She would never talk to me. She wouldn’t go to events with me, yeah, she just wouldn’t talk to me.
“And all the people that I was working with day in, day out were all Bruce’s former colleagues … And they knew the reason that he was fired was in relation to me. So it was this weird thing … people were treating me kind of weirdly and weren’t overly nice.”
Higgins said she was upset Brown did not allow her to work out of Queensland so she could be near her family but insisted she move to Western Australia, which was the home state of Reynolds.
She said she felt Brown was annoyed when she didn’t make a quick decision about moving to Perth during the election campaign and the atmosphere was tense.
Higgins said she was “rebuffed” by Brown when she asked if she could see the tapes from the multiple CCTV cameras in Parliament House.
“She rebuffed it, she didn’t really answer it,” Higgins said. “They [the cameras] had to have seen something.”
Collins took Higgins to 2021 when she decided to reactivate a police complaint and go public because she did not want to be “complicit” in a cover-up.
“I started to feel sick just knowing that I was complicit in their cover-ups and their silence because I hadn’t called it out,” she told the court.
“[There were people who] somehow knew about the assault in media circles in Canberra. It almost came up at Senate estimates. It was this like re-traumatising event,” she said, adding that she “couldn’t be silent about it any more”.
The trial continues on Thursday.