Power and politics: how the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins sparked a reckoning

<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

At a crowded bar on Canberra’s Kingston Foreshore on a Friday night in March 2019, a group of young political staffers, public servants and defence contractors met for after-work drinks. For most of the people at the Dock Bar that evening, it was the kind of night that blurs quickly into many others like it; they drank beer, ate pizza, looked at their phones during lulls in the conversation.

Others danced with the ease of people confident CCTV footage of that night wouldn’t later be played to a packed Canberra courtroom in the trial of Bruce Lehrmann, the man accused of raping Brittany Higgins inside Parliament House in the early hours of the next morning.

This week, after a series of delays caused in part by the wave of media attention the trial has garnered, it began. On Tuesday, wearing a navy suit, tan boots and a gold-faced watch, Lehrmann pleaded not guilty.

Since Higgins went public with her allegations last year, she – and her story – have become central to a much wider conversation about the nature of power in politics and the culture inside federal parliament. In her instructions to the jury, the chief justice, Lucy McCallum, acknowledged as much, saying the case had become a “cause célèbre” with a “momentum of its own”.

Brittany Higgins
Brittany Higgins arriving in court. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The jury, she said, must put those considerations aside to focus on whether the case against Lehrmann had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. On a drunken night out, did a Coalition staff member rape his colleague on a lounge inside parliament house, or – as Lerhmann’s defence barrister, Steven Whybrow, put it his week – have the Australian public been “sold a pup”?

The night

The two were colleagues inside the office of then defence industries minister Linda Reynolds and were among the crowd at the Dock on that Friday night. Later, they went to another bar in Canberra with two other Liberal party staffers.

In this witness stand this week, Higgins initially remained composed as she watched footage of the night, occasionally answering questions about how much she drank: 10 or 11 drinks at the Dock, shots at another bar later, “as drunk as I’ve ever been in my life” she later told police.

Related: Christian Porter allegations prompted Brittany Higgins to go public about her own alleged rape, court hears

Higgins painted a grim picture of the evening; with the 2019 election looming, Liberal party staffers were “lamenting” about what they believed would be a loss. They were “all about to be unemployed in six weeks”, she said, so were “pretty sad”.

She didn’t know the people in the group well, and, being new in Reynolds’ office, had invited Lehrmann, who she had an “adversarial” relationship with, to show she could “value-add”. She also brought along a date who, she said, was “bullied mercilessly” for wearing a suit.

“I think because everyone in that group had this weirdly high opinion of themselves on the basis they worked in parliament or defence in some sort of position they perceived to be important,” she said.

“So he left.”

At about 1.30am, Higgins and Lehrmann shared a cab. She recalls him telling her that he needed to go via Parliament House to pick up some documents. Despite neither of them having their security passes, they found their way through security and into the office.

Higgins broke down as she watched herself going through security, struggling to put her shoes on, while Lehrmann waited.

She says she remembers sitting on a ledge in Reynolds’ suite, before making her way to a lounge directly opposite the minister’s desk. It’s there, she alleges, that she woke to Lehrmann raping her.

In interviews with police played in court this week, she described waking because of a pain in her thigh from Lehrmann’s knee digging into her, of him “grunting” above her, and of repeatedly telling him to stop.

“I told him no. I told him to stop,” she said in the interview. “It felt like I was on repeat [but] at that point, I don’t know why, but it felt like it was going on for a while [and] it was an afterthought. I was suddenly there and it didn’t matter.”

She felt “trapped”, she said, and “not human”.

Lehrmann denies her account. Despite the ACT director of public prosecutions, Shane Drumgold SC, accusing him of having “lied” in accounts of why he went to parliament that morning, his barrister, Steven Whybrow, says that Lehrmann had collected some documents and called an Uber before leaving without Higgins. They did not have sex, he said.

A witness had seen Lehrmann and Higgins kissing at the second bar they attended that night, 88mph, something she says she does not remember. A security guard who saw Higgins passed out on the lounge at about 4am had described her as being naked, while she remembered her dress being “scrunched up”.

It was a key difference, Whybrow contended; “different inferences flow from whether she had perhaps taken the dress off before passing out waiting for Mr Lehrmann”, he told the jury.

Steven Whybrow
Steven Whybrow, the defence barrister for the accused, Bruce Lerhamnn. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The fallout

The first person that Higgins told about the alleged rape was her chief of staff, Fiona Brown, about four days later, during a private meeting, according to Higgins. Her presence with Lehrmann inside parliament in the early hours of that Saturday morning had been a breach of security, and she at first feared she would lose her job.

“The moment I vocalised and said it to Fiona that’s when it fully hit me and identified it as rape … I knew what had happened, I knew it was wrong,” she said in an interview with police played to the court.

While she described Brown as being sympathetic, it was also, she said, “when the gears shifted and it became less about me and more political”.

On 1 April she had a meeting with both Brown and Reynolds inside the same office where she alleges the rape occurred.

“That was quite a distracting element. I was quite panicked just on the basis that I was in the room with the couch, so the words were a little bit lost,” she told the court.

While there was “a general level of empathy”, the topic soon turned to the looming 2019 election. They were “trying to feel out”, she said, whether Higgins planned to go to the police.

“My interpretation of that was that if I raised it with police, there were going to be problems and they wanted to be involved or informed, but just by having the meeting in the room, it all seemed really off,” she said.

“And my interpretation of that was a bit of a scare tactic or an intimidation tactic, whether it was intentional or not, that’s not a fair assumption.”

A recurring theme in Higgins’ evidence was her fear of coming forward. After initially filing a report with police about the alleged assault, on 15 April 2019 – five days after the then prime minister, Scott Morrison, called the 2019 election – she wrote to officers to tell them she would not proceed with the complaint.

“It’s just not the right decision for me personally, especially in light of my current workplace demands,” she wrote.

She described, through both evidence to police and during her witness testimony in court, a fear that her “dream” career as a political staffer would be over if she reported the alleged rape to police.

Higgins says she did things like deleting messages off of her phone, or paying for a doctor’s appointment without using a medicare card, out of her fear of the “party implications”, and, she said on Friday, concern about the flow of information to the then home affairs minister Peter Dutton.

“I was so scared of coming forward,” she said in a police interview recorded in May of 2021.

“I was really cognisant of all the party implications all the way through. Because of the pressure I was feeling I made it hard for myself … it was so stupid.”

Related: Brittany Higgins says alleged rape became ‘not about me’ as top journalists vied for story, court told

The media

During his opening address to the jury and in his cross-examination, the barrister for Lehrmann, Steven Whybrow, repeatedly raised the fact Higgins spoke to the media – in interviews with the journalists Samantha Maiden and Lisa Wilkinson – before seeking to reinstate her complaint with police.

She had “erased” key details from the night, including the fact a witness says they saw her and Lehrmann kissing, and said the Australian public had been “sold a pup” over the allegations.

Calling it “a story whose time had come”, Whybrow said Higgins’ partner, David Sharaz, and Wilkinson “were not going to let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

But Higgins described it differently, saying that at times she felt that her alleged rape became “not about me or my story”.

She was not trying to damage the Liberal party by coming forward, she said, but to change it.

“I loved my party, I loved the Liberal party,” she said. “It sounds absurd. I didn’t necessarily want to hurt them. I wanted to reform this issue.”

The trial continues.