More than 15,000 Australians watched on as Brittany Higgins took to the stand live on YouTube for the Bruce Lehrmann v Network 10 trial.
Mr Lehrmann is suing journalist Lisa Wilkinson and Channel 10 over a February 2021 The Project interview with Ms Higgins, who claims she was raped by Mr Lehrmann inside Parliament House.
Justice Michael Lee ruled that the case would be live-streamed in its entirety on the Federal Court of Australia’s YouTube page because of the high level of public interest.
Ms Higgins alleged that she was raped by Mr Lehrmann – a claim which Mr Lehrmann has consistently and vehemently denied.
Over the last fortnight, Ms Higgins spent just over four days on the stand as a star witness for Network 10.
At 1.48am on a Saturday morning in March 2019, the two political staffers, then members of Senator Linda Reynolds’ office, arrived at parliament after a night of drinking at two Canberra pubs.
Security footage captures Ms Higgins, dressed in a white cocktail dress, and Mr Lehrmann making their way through security before being taken to the senator’s office.
What happened inside the office over the next approximately 45 minutes is unknown and the subject of conflicting stories.
Ms Higgins told the court that she first met Mr Lehrmann at a Canberra pub on March 2 that year.
At the time, she was working for departing MP Steven Ciobo, and was hoping to secure employment in Senator Linda Reynolds’ office, where she would go on to work alongside him.
The first meeting was the subject of contention during the trial. Ms Higgins says at the Kingston Hotel Mr Lehrmann attempted to take her phone in a playful attempt to stop her from ordering an Uber, so that she would have one more drink
“At one point Mr Lehrmann took my phone in jest so I couldn’t leave,” Ms Higgins said.
Mr Lehrmann, during his evidence, denied that such an incident took place.
On the evening of March 22, 2019, Ms Higgins met with parliamentary colleagues as well as other staff from Senator Reynolds’ office.
After having a drink at home, she went to The Dock. Mr Lehrmann and Austin Wenke – a media adviser in Peter Dutton’s office – arrived soon after.
She sat at a table alongside her colleagues as well as her Bumble date, “Nick” who she had met her there.
The court heard that she had told officers during her police interview “Nick” was “bullied” by her colleagues over his position within the Australian Public Service.
However CCTV showed Ms Higgins sitting with Mr Lehrmann, Mr Wenke and colleague Lauren Gain at another table.
Just after 9.30pm, “Nick” picked up his jacket and left without speaking with Ms Higgins, who by that time had been seated at the other table for half an hour.
Ms Higgins told the court that she had no recollection of how much she drank at The Dock, however she said from viewing CCTV she knew she had 11 vodka drinks.
She said she didn’t believe she had any water and ate one slice of pizza, describing her level of alcohol consumption as “excessive”.
She said she got progressively more drunk throughout the night to the point she was getting “messy” and slurring her words.
“I’m embarrassed talking about it, I was very drunk,” Ms Higgins told the court.
A group consisting of Mr Wenke, Ms Gain, Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgins, then travelled to another bar, 88MPH.
She recalled drinking in a corner booth, including doing one shot, and dancing by herself on the dance floor.
She said Mr Lehrmann put his arm around her shoulder and touched her thigh at the bar.
Ms Higgins told the court that she didn’t “snap at him” and tell him to stop, describing it as being in her “field of tolerance.”
“I felt he was being handsy,” Ms Higgins said.
Ms Gain told the court this week that she saw Ms Higgins and Mr Lehrmann share a “passionate kiss” while seated at a booth.
“I remember Brittany and Bruce sitting quite close together, them being quite touchy with each other, I remember them kissing and her taking selfies of the two of them,” Ms Gain told the court.
Ms Gain added that she saw Mr Lehrmann placing his hands on Ms Higgins’ thigh, and that Ms Higgins had placed her hand on Mr Lehrmann’s thigh.
According to Ms Higgins, she agreed to share an Uber with Mr Lehrmann before he then said he needed to stop off at Parliament House to pick something up.
Asked why she got out when they got to parliament, she said she didn’t know.
She said she may have assumed she got out because the Uber trip only had one destination plugged in.
“He was never specific about what he was picking up,” Ms Higgins said.
“He has said something different into the intercom, I had no idea what he was picking up.”
Around 1.30am, Ms Higgins and Mr Lehrmann shared an Uber back to parliament and were seen walking through security and were escorted back to Senator Linda Reynolds’ suite.
From there, their versions of events vastly differ.
They entered the minister’s suite at 1.48am and Mr Lehrmann emerged at about 2.30am.
Two diagrams tendered to the court demonstrate their stories.
Mr Lehrmann says that he went left and sat at his desk and made notes about ministerial briefings, while Ms Higgins went right towards the minister’s office.
He says he left without seeing Ms Higgins again that evening, that he did not check on her welfare and has vehemently denied sexually assaulting her.
Ms Higgins said that she went to sit on a windowsill overlooking the Prime Minister’s courtyard before she passed out.
According to her, she was a “10 out of 10” drunk.
She says that when she woke up she was on a couch in the minister’s private office and Mr Lehrmann was on top of her.
“So the first thing I remember when I woke up was a pain in my leg, that was the thing that stirred me up. Bruce was on top of me,” Ms Higgins told the court in her evidence.
“My head was in the back corner of the couch. He was on top of me, his arms were over the top of the couch.
“He was having sex with me at that point in time and that was what I first woke up to.”
She told the court she repeatedly told him ‘no’ but couldn’t scream.
“I told him no, on a loop,” Ms Higgins said.
“I don’t know how many times I said it. I told him to stop. I couldn’t scream for some reason.
“It was trapped in my throat, I couldn’t do it.
“I felt waterlogged and heavy and I couldn’t move.”
She said that Mr Lehrmann left without saying anything to her.
About 4am a security guard came to check on her and found her naked lying on a couch.
When she woke the following morning, she said she threw up in the minister’s toilet and ate a box of Roses chocolates she found in the office.
The next week
Ms Higgins arrived at work on the Monday and Mr Lehrmann sent her an email which included a smiley face.
“I think because we’d never had a friendly social relationship, and then suddenly after he raped me there was this familiarity and a smiley face,” she said.
“I felt undeserved and it really, it gave me the heebie jeebies, I don’t know, it just really freaked me out.”
The court heard that on the Tuesday she emailed Mr Lehrmann after being given a task by Senator Reynolds.
“Hi Bruce, I’m phoning a friend – need some help with the task Drew set me. I’m hoping to utilise your Parliamentary network to get portfolio stats from whichever offices you can. … Would you mind maybe helping out by chance?”
Asked why she used the word ‘friend’, she told the court she was trying to “diffuse the situation” and make it “as normal as possible”.
“I was still in denial about everything and I needed help with a work thing.
The Fiona Brown meeting
That same day, Ms Higgins saw Mr Lehrmann called into a meeting by Ms Reynolds’ chief of staff Fiona Brown.
Mr Lehrmann was dismissed for breaching the ministerial code of conduct for entering Parliament House after hours, packed up his belongings in a boxes and left.
Ms Higgins was also called in by Ms Brown and she said it was in that meeting that she first disclosed the sexual assault allegation.
Ms Higgins said she disclosed that she was “drunk” and Mr Lehrmann was “on top of me”.
She said that Ms Brown said to her “oh God”, and that she was “shocked and upset”.
Ms Brown gave her a number for the Employee Assistance Program, however was later told that she couldn’t get an appointment with a psychologist for several months.
The court also heard that Ms Higgins was called into another meeting several days later, on April 1, 2019 inside Ms Reynolds’ office – the room where she alleges she was raped.
“It was the first time I’d been back in the room after the assault … It really had an impact,” Ms Higgins told the court on Wednesday, adding she did not think it needed to be raised because it was “glaringly obvious”.
She said that during the meeting Ms Reynolds apologised.
“The minister said ‘I’m sorry’, she said ‘these are things that women go through’, she said ‘if you go to the police, please keep us informed’, she said ‘I didn’t think he was capable of this’,” Ms Higgins told the court.
“From that I inferred she was talking about Bruce.”
Ms Higgins told the court that she was later told by Ms Brown she could either move to Western Australia for the 2019 federal election or move to the Gold Coast and lose her job.
Ms Higgins gave evidence on Wednesday that she had a conversation with Ms Brown about her future in Ms Reynolds’ office during the election.
She said, at the time, conversations with Ms Brown had become “tense.”
“Fiona Brown used words to the effect of ‘During the election, where would you want to be? You can go to the WA or you can go home to the Gold Coast’,” Ms Higgins recalled.
“And I said, ‘Well, I’d obviously want to be near my family (on the Gold Coast), that would be great.‘
“And she said they would just pay me out to go to the Gold Coast, but I wouldn’t be working.”
Ms Higgins told the Federal Court that she gave incorrect evidence to Mr Lehrmann’s criminal trial in the ACT Supreme Court last year.
The trial was abandoned due to juror misconduct and the DPP elected not to pursue a retrial because of concerns about Ms Higgins’ welfare.
The court heard that at the trial she had claimed that a bruise, which she photographed, was suffered during the alleged attack.
She also told The Project that the bruise was caused by the alleged sexual assault.
However, she has been forced to concede that the bruise may have been caused when she fell on the stairs as she left 88MPH.
“At the time I believed it had been caused by the assault but with hindsight and … in the criminal trial, it was put to me it was possible it came from another source,” Ms Higgins said.
“So I’ve now had to accept it may not have come from the assault itself.”
Under cross-examination from Mr Lehrmann’s barrister Steve Whybrow she denied shifting her “narrative” and maintained she was attempting to give an “honest” answer.”
The court heard that when Ms Higgins sent the photo to The Project producer Angus Llewellyn, she sent him a screenshot rather than the original.
Ms Higgins denied that she sent him a screenshot so it would not contain any metadata, which would establish when it was taken.
“There was no evidence that (the photo) was in existence before the start of 2021 other than what you said,” Mr Whybrow said.
“I did exist, I took it around the time of the assault,” Ms Higgins said.
Ms Higgins also told the court that she made incorrect claims about the state of her dress when she woke up the morning of the alleged sexual assault.
The court heard that in a transcript of her draft book she wrote that after the alleged sexual assault, she woke up with her dress scrunched up, hanging loosely around her waist.
The court heard she made similar claims during a five-hour pre-interview chat with Ms Wilkinson, to news.com.au journalist Samanatha Maiden, and to police.
However, that version of events was contradicted by the evidence of security guard Nikola Anderson who said Ms Higgins’ clothes and shoes were on the floor next to the couch.
“Are you telling his honour that those recollections were not reliable,” Mr Whybrow asked.
“That’s true, I thought it was on my waist, I was incorrect, I didn’t know where the dress was,” Ms Higgins said.
“I thought it was on my waist because I don’t remember putting it on the next day. So I deduced it was still on.”
Ms Higgins stayed within Ms Reynolds’ office to work on the 2019 federal election during which the Coalition were returned against all odds.
It was around that time that she elected not to pursue a formal police complaint.
In an email to police, she said: “After careful consideration I’ve decided not to proceed any further and disregard. I really appreciate your time, professionalism and assistance with this complaint. You helped me more than you know. It’s just not the right decision for me personally, especially in light of my current workplace demand.”
After the election, Ms Higgins went to work for Senator Michaelia Cash.
In October that year, a journalist made a media inquiry about an alleged incident in Ms Reynolds’ office.
She was told by Ms Reynolds’ chief of staff, Daniel Try, that he had squashed the media inquiry.
She later reactivated her complaint with the Australian Federal Police in 2021 and during an interview with two officers she informed them that she was set to go to the media.
She said she decided to make a public statement and speak to journalists after seeing other stories about the treatment of women.
“I couldn’t be silent about it anymore because I felt like it wasn’t just me, it was so many other people,” she said.
“When it became clear it was a pattern at that point I couldn’t sit on it anymore, it made me feel sick just knowing I was complicit in this, their cover-ups and their silence because I hadn’t called it out.”
The book deal
Ms Higgins has repeatedly denied making the allegations for financial reasons or to damage the Liberal Party.
The court heard that she had been paid $108,000 for an advance for a book deal and would receive $216,000 from Penguin Random House when she completed the project.
“So you have 216,000-odd reasons, in my submission, to not want to tell the truth, which was that it didn’t happen … You have a financial interest in the outcome of the proceedings,” Mr Whybrow said.
“I declare it now, if I ever actually finish the book, I will donate all 200-and-whatever to charity,” Ms Higgins said.
“I don’t care about the money. Take it on oath right away. I don’t care about it.”
The court has heard that Ms Higgins was paid over $2.4m in compensation after setting her personal injury claim with the Commonwealth.
The trial before Justice Michael Lee continues next week.