Canberra culture in sharp focus during Lehrmann trial

Bruce Lehrmann, the former Liberal staffer accused of raping his former colleague Brittany Higgins, didn’t want to use his police interview as a “therapy session”, he told the detectives questioning him in 2021.

But the culture of politics in general, and Parliament House in particular, had been rotten to work in, he said.

Bruce Lehrmann says the culture at Parliament House was not positive.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

That’s why he had been planning his escape from politics into the corporate sector when the events of the evening of March 22 overtook his life and changed it forever.

“I mean, you know, I don’t want to use [this] as a therapy session, but ministers treat their staff in a way that’s not the same as I’ve seen since leaving politics,” he told police in April 2021, two years after the events he was being questioned about.

“It’s very mentally scarring.”

Lehrmann said senator Bridget McKenzie, for whom he had worked when she was a minister in the former Morrison government, was famous for the ill-treatment of her staff.

“Bridget McKenzie was one minister who was notorious for treating her staff poorly, and me included on a very personal level,” Lehrmann said.

During his police interview, Lehrmann accused Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie of treating staff poorly.Credit:James Brickwood

“I just formed a view of the culture of the place,” he says of his decision to leave politics.

“I know there’s been a lot of discussion about the treatment of women, but irrespective of that, I think more broadly the culture was horrendous.”

Lehrmann’s trial has brought into sharp focus the booze-infested, hierarchy-heavy and often plain nasty culture of what former prime minister Scott Morrison called the “Canberra bubble”.

The prosecution relied heavily on evidence of the political pressure Higgins says she was under to shut up about her rape complaint.

Brittany Higgins arriving at court during Bruce Lehrmann’s rape trial.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

To the prosecution, it was the strongest line of argument to counter questions about why Higgins didn’t pursue a police complaint at the time of the alleged incident in March 2019.

On the final day of evidence, Shane Drumgold, SC, reserved his sharpest tongue for the most powerful witnesses: Linda Reynolds and Michaelia Cash, both Coalition senators and, until recently, government ministers.

It was in Reynolds’ parliamentary office that Lehrmann was accused of raping Higgins while she was partly unconscious after a night out drinking with colleagues in the early hours of March 23, 2019.

The alleged rape took place inside the office of then-Defence Minister Linda Reynolds.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Reynolds agreed from the witness box that, although Morrison was yet to call the date, an election was imminent.

What was unclear from her evidence was how much Reynolds knew about what Higgins had said she’d suffered at the hands of her co-worker and what she’d actually done about it.

Drumgold had artfully painted the trial of Lehrmann as neither about the #MeToo movement nor about the experiences of any other women in parliament.

On the other hand, he said certain higher powers had a direct impact on how Higgins and others handled her complaint.

“There were clearly strong political forces at play in the period immediately after the events, through the election and beyond.”

Drumgold told the jury Higgins had a “right to be scared” of reporting her alleged sexual assault to police.

“Suffice to say there were clearly strong political forces at play in the period immediately after the events, through the election and beyond,” Drumgold said in this closing address. Higgins, he said, was the “young lady” in the middle of those forces.

Reynolds, who had appeared under subpoena, denied politics had any influence over Higgins’ decision in 2019 to abandon her initial approach to police after the alleged incident.

Instead, Higgins withdrew from the police process and remained in her job, travelling to Western Australia with her boss to assist during the 2019 election campaign.

In the same evidence, the senator was forced into an extraordinary concession when Drumgold asked her about texts she had sent just before appearing in court.

Reynolds admitted she had texted Lehrmann’s barrister to offer a suggested line of questioning while he was cross-examining Higgins, as well as asking him for the transcript of Higgins’ testimony before she gave her own.

As Reynolds was called as a Crown witness, Drumgold had to seek leave from the judge to cross-examine her, which meant he could ask her leading questions.

“What is your motive for attempting to coach the cross-examination?” Drumgold put to her.

Reynolds: “That’s not what I was seeking to do.”

Drumgold: “I am suggesting that on this basis you are clearly politically invested in the outcome of this trial, aren’t you?”

Reynolds: “No … I don’t understand the nexus between the two.”

Drumgold: “If you’re invested enough to text my friend … and we’re not even in an election, we don’t have an election pending, I’m suggesting that back on 1 April, 2019, when you’re meeting with Brittany Higgins, you’re very politically invested in what’s happening in that room, aren’t you?”

Reynolds: “Absolutely not.”

Former federal minister Michaelia Cash testified in the Bruce Lehrmann rape trial.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Cash, whom Higgins worked for from June 2019, was pushed to reject an assertion that she denied knowing about the alleged sexual assault before February 2021, when Higgins resigned, because it would have been politically inconvenient.

Higgins previously told the court she had spoken to Cash, who was then employment and skills minister, about the allegation on several occasions.

Lerhmann’s barrister, Steven Whybrow, asked Cash whether it would be “political suicide” to try to cover up a sexual assault between staff. Cash said it would, “hence my confusion with the previous line of questioning”.

Evidence was also led during the trial about the alcohol-infused environment in which staffers socialise.

On the night of the alleged incident, a group of political staffers and departmental employees got together in a popular pub on the Kingston foreshore.

According to Higgins, they were a set who “had this weirdly high opinion of themselves on the basis they either worked in parliament or defence”.

Higgins had 11 drinks at that bar before a smaller group, including Lehrmann, kicked on to a nightclub in the city centre, 88MPH, around midnight.

There, they had shots and danced.

“It was actually a very good night. It was such an innocuous night … for staff to be out drinking, this was not an unusual night.”

“It was actually a very good night,” Lehrmann said. “It was such an innocuous night … for staff to be out drinking, this was not an unusual night.”

Alcohol formed a big part of the Crown’s evidence. There was the amount that was consumed by Higgins on the evening, making her so intoxicated she didn’t remember key parts of it.

But the court also heard about the presence of alcohol in ministerial offices.

Lehrmann told two colleagues he took Higgins back to Reynolds’ office at 1.30am to drink whisky.

Another staffer, Nicole Hamer, told the court Lehrmann kept an array of alcohol in his office, a claim he denied.

Lehrmann was just 23 when these events unfolded, and he was already Reynolds’ most senior staffer, even though he had not yet graduated from his arts/policy degree at the Australian National University.

The trial provided an insight into the lifestyles of the young staffers, who are given great power and prestige within the fiefdoms of ministerial offices, despite their lack of experience, professional or otherwise.

The court heard Higgins had been working for former Queensland MP Steven Ciobo when he was defence industries minister.

But when Ciobo announced his retirement from politics before the 2019 election, his portfolio was passed onto Reynolds and the offices’ staff merged.

Higgins gave evidence that Lehrmann was territorial in the context of the office.

He claimed two desks in a back office of the ministerial suite as his own, and asserted his superiority as the top staffer Reynolds had brought over with her into the defence industries ministry she had just inherited, Higgins said.

“I had a strange, adversarial relationship with him,” Higgins told police, later telling them she had rebuffed a kiss from him outside a Canberra pub but didn’t treat it seriously because “I’ve had other people in politics make passes at me before”.

“I’ve had other people in politics make passes at me before.”

Lehrmann was very much the young Liberal staffer, according to Higgins. He even dressed the part, in RM Williams boots and Ralph Lauren shirts: “The standard sort-of Liberal attire … the full gauntlet of everything put together.”

Despite the culture of secrecy and cover-up Higgins said discouraged her from reporting her allegation to police in 2019, word about what had allegedly happened between her and Lehrmann in the ministerial suite began to leak.

Staffers gossiped, parliament security guards gossiped, and eventually, journalists began to hear whispers of an incident.

There was a media inquiry from the Canberra Times in October 2019 which rattled Higgins, who was by that time working for Cash.

The court heard Higgins told her friend and ex-boyfriend Ben Dillaway, also a staffer, that he could disclose to Julian Leembruggen, from Morrison’s office, details of her allegation. Dillaway thought this might get Higgins some help, although it was unclear what kind.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison denied prior knowledge of the alleged rape.Credit:Dean Sewell

Dillaway said Higgins was “struggling significantly, not coping with things”.

“I said, let me discreetly go speak to someone in the Prime Minister’s Office because surely this can move things along, or surely this will get you the help you need,” he said.

But later, Morrison would deny he knew anything about the alleged rape until the story broke publicly on February 15, 2021, on

Amid growing political pressure and incredulity, the head of the Prime Minister’s Office Phil Gaetjens was tasked with investigating who knew what, and when, about the alleged incident.

But the Gaetjens inquiry was suspended once the criminal justice process commenced. Now the government has changed, it is unclear if the public will ever have those answers.

Higgins certainly started to become suspicious and distrustful of the twin institutions she had always held in such high esteem, the Liberal Party and Parliament House.

After the alleged incident, and the 2019 election, which the Coalition won in an upset victory, Higgins returned to Parliament House to work for Cash.

She became, by her own admission, “obsessed” with seeing the CCTV footage of her and Lehrmann entering parliament in the early hours of March 23rd.

She believed other people in the building, people she worked alongside, had seen it and she felt she needed to piece together what had happened to her.

When she made her formal complaint to the police in 2021, she deleted content on her phone before handing it over. She said it was because she was scared.

She told the court this was because she was scared about then-home affairs minister Peter Dutton using his powers to acquire information from the Australian Federal Police about her police complaint.

“I was pretty terrified on the basis that that week I found out the moment I had re-engaged with police, before I had given a formal statement to police, there is a provision that any politically sensitive, I don’t know, potential court cases … get reported to the home affairs minister,” she told the court.

“Peter Dutton came out and said that he had the baseline information of my complaint before I even gave an evidence-in-chief interview. I know how information flows within the ministerial wing and I know that it’s not siloed. I was very, very scared.”

Much was made of Higgins’ job in politics. To the prosecution, it was the reason Higgins had initially dropped her complaint, so she would be freed up to work during the election.

To the defence, the original complaint was Higgins’ primary means of keeping her employ under Reynolds, to be discarded when she perceived it was no longer under threat.

Whybrow questioned the evidence Drumgold relied upon to pround the political forces Higgins was left to navigate.

He said there were no political forces at play, “other than from Ms Higgins”.

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