Bruce Lehrmann’s lawyer has told jurors that Brittany Higgins “erased” key details from the night of her alleged rape inside Parliament House, saying the Australian public had been “sold a pup” over the allegations.
On Tuesday the trial of Lehrmann, a former political staffer, over the alleged sexual assault of Higgins inside Parliament House began in Canberra.
Lehrmann has denied the allegation and has entered a plea of not guilty. The hearing began with the ACT director of public prosecutions, Shane Drumgold SC, telling jurors that Lehrmann had “lied” about why he attended parliament in the early hours of 23 March 2019.
It ended with Higgins in tears, as she appeared in the witness box via an audio-visual link after her recorded interview with police in February 2021 was played to the court.
Between that, Lehrmann’s lawyer, Steven Wyborn, told jurors the case was about her “reliability” and “credibility”, saying his client denied the two ever had sex, and that “the Australian public has been sold a pup with this story.”
“I suggest to you that what Ms Higgins said happened didn’t happen,” he said.
Higgins has alleged she was raped by Lehrmann, who was then her colleague, in the office of their then boss, defence industries minister Linda Reynolds, in the early hours of the morning on 23 March 2019.
The case attracted significant media attention after Higgins went public with the allegations, and the trial has repeatedly been delayed in part because of pretrial publicity.
The jury had earlier heard Higgins was “as drunk as she had ever been in her life” on the night of the alleged assault, after a long drinking session at the Dock and 88mph bars in Canberra.
Wyborn said the jury would hear evidence from one of the four people who attended the second bar who had seen the pair kissing, Lauren Gaine.
He said Gaine had “sent a text the next day, without having spoken to anyone, to someone else they knew, that Bruce and Brittany had hooked up that night”.
That fact, Wyborn said, had been “erased” during the public interviews conducted by Higgins since she went public with the accusations in an interview with Project host Lisa Wilkinson. He also pointed to inconsistencies between Higgins’s account of waking up partly dressed, and a security guard who reported seeing her naked and passed out on the lounge inside Reynolds’ office in the early hours of the morning.
Noting the flood of stories about mistreatment of women in politics, Wyborn said the allegations against Lehrmann were “a story whose time had come”.
“When Ms Higgins partner, David Sharaz, contacted Lisa Wilkinson on 18 January 2021 and told her he had a story she would probably be very interested in about a young woman subjected to a sexual assault in Parliament House, this unstoppable snowball started rolling down a mountain picking up speed until it could not be stopped by anything as mundane as, in this particular case, the allegations were not true,” he said.
“This is a story whose time had come [and] David Sharaz and Lisa Wilkinson were not going to let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
The jury were played the first part of Higgins’s interview with police on 24 February 2021, after she went public with her claims during an interview with Wilkinson on the Project.
In the interview, Higgins told police she had invited Lehrmann to drinks with defence contractors and public servants at the Dock bar in Canberra.
She had recently joined Reynolds’ office where Lehrmann was “more established” she said. The two had an “antagonistic” relationship and she wanted to “demonstrate her value”.
She described him as “very slightly” overweight, wearing “the standard Liberal attire”, including RM Williams boots and Ralph Lauren shirts.
She said she recalled falling over at the second bar, and Lehrmann helping her up.
“I thought we were getting to a point where it was a better relationship because it had been so adversarial I was broadly quite accepting of his help,” she said.
She told police that her memory of the events after leaving the bar “isn’t the best”, but that she remembered sitting on a window ledge before later waking up on a lounge inside the minister’s office.
“The next thing I sort of remember was being on the couch and he was raping me,” she said.
“The first thing I woke up to was a pain in my leg … he had his knee into my thigh [and] I couldn’t get him off me. I was crying throughout the entire process … and so he was on top of me I said no at least half a dozen times.”
When the video ended for the day, Higgins appeared on the screen in tears.
The hearing continues.