December 18, 2023

Queensland MP reveals text, call with Higgins about alleged rape

By Michaela Whitbourn and Clare Sibthorpe
Updated December 18, 2023 — 7.21pmfirst published at 9.08am
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The former chief of staff to then defence industry minister Linda Reynolds has told Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation case that her “antenna was up” when Lehrmann told her he had gone back to the Liberal senator’s Parliament House office in the early hours of a Saturday to drink whisky.

But Fiona Brown, who was Reynolds’ chief of staff in March 2019, has denied the minister’s then media adviser Brittany Higgins told her on March 26, 2019, that she had woken up in the early hours of March 23 in the office and her then colleague Lehrmann had been “on top of me”.

Bruce Lehrmann outside the Federal Court in Sydney on Monday.Credit: Edwina Pickles

Brown was called to give evidence on Monday in Lehrmann’s defamation case against Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson over an interview with Higgins aired on The Project on February 15, 2021. Brown’s evidence was not livestreamed on YouTube owing to mental health considerations.

“I’m not going to be responsible for unnecessarily exacerbating people’s mental health issues,” Justice Michael Lee said.

Brown told the Federal Court in Sydney that she had thought it was “possible” Lehrmann and Higgins had had sex in the ministerial office. Lehrmann has denied sexually assaulting Higgins and denied the pair had any sexual contact.

She said that after meeting with Lehrmann on March 26 it had entered her mind that she may have been sexually assaulted, but she could not rule it in or out.

“I’d been told she was found naked,” Brown said. She said Lehrmann had told her that Higgins was “fine” when he left the office without her.

Brown told the court she was “puzzled” when Lehrmann, then an adviser in Reynolds’ office, told her he returned to the office to drink whisky but that he was not intoxicated.

Brittany Higgins leaves the Federal Court last month.Credit: Rhett Wyman


She said she was concerned about security implications if he had come back to the office to look at files.

Asked by Lee if it occurred to her that Lehrmann “wasn’t necessarily being candid”, Brown said: “My antenna was up.”

Brown said she did not recall telling a departmental liaison officer in Reynolds’ office, Chris Payne, that Higgins had been found “in a state of undress” in the minister’s office, and denied saying she would try to get access to CCTV footage to “get to the bottom of” what had happened.

Payne has given evidence that Brown said words to this effect to him in the days after the alleged assault.

During cross-examination by Wilkinson’s barrister, Sue Chrysanthou, SC, Brown denied giving Higgins details of the employee assistance program during a meeting with her later on March 26, after her meeting with Lehrmann, because she had a suspicion Higgins had been assaulted.

“I reject that,” Brown said. She said she believed she would have given the same information to Lehrmann but did not have a specific record.

She denied Higgins told her she had been assaulted, but gave evidence that Higgins had said she woke up semi-naked on the couch in Reynolds’ office.

“I want to suggest to you that by the end of the day, irrespective of what Ms Higgins told you, you were concerned that she’d been assaulted,” Chrysanthou said.

“I didn’t think she’d been assaulted. I thought she would have told me,” Brown said.

Brown told the court that Higgins told her two days later: “I remember him being on top of me.” But she told the court Higgins “didn’t say it was something she didn’t want”.

Earlier on Monday, Queensland Liberal National Party MP Sam O’Connor gave evidence that Higgins revealed to him that she had been raped in Parliament House within days of the alleged assault.

“I absolutely remember the word rape. That’s not something that you forget, and she absolutely did say he had taken her back to Parliament House,” O’Connor said.

The member for the state seat of Bonney said he had known Higgins for about a year when she told him in a phone call on March 29, 2019, that another Liberal Party staffer had “taken her back to Parliament House” after a night out drinking with colleagues and had raped her.

Queensland Liberal National Party MP Sam O’Connor in Sydney on Monday.Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

He told the court he did not know the name of the staffer at the time, but Higgins had said he had worked for the former attorney-general George Brandis and was from Toowoomba.

Lehrmann had worked for Brandis before securing a job in Reynold’s office.

The court heard that Higgins had sent O’Connor a text message before the call saying that a “super f—ed up thing happened a little while ago”.

He said Higgins had been a “real go-getter”, “her dream job was to be a press secretary, a media adviser, in Canberra”, and she “loved every minute of that role”.


But O’Connor said that after the alleged assault Higgins “absolutely was different”.

She was testier, he said, and they sometimes had arguments over small things.

Veteran news boss ‘initially sceptical’

Veteran news boss Peter Meakin, who advised Ten on the Higgins interview as an editorial consultant, gave evidence on Monday that he knew the story would be legally contentious.

He said in an affidavit filed in court that he was “initially sceptical” about the story and “wanted to see what Ms Higgins said about the matter and what other evidence there was to support her claims”.

He said watching an edited version of Wilkinson’s interview with Higgins, recorded on February 2, 2021, was a factor in changing his view. Meakin agreed he did not watch the uncut two-hour interview.

Peter Meakin outside the Federal Court in Sydney on Monday.Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

“I’ve never spoken to Ms Higgins,” he said. He agreed that his view of Higgins was shaped entirely by what The Project’s producer Angus Llewellyn provided to him or told him.

The court heard that Meakin emailed Llewellyn on February 3, 2021, and said he planned to advise that approaches for comment or interviews with third parties would not be made “without the approval of Brittany”, and that in the case of political figures “it won’t be until much closer to the transmission date”.

Meakin told the court it was his intention to keep Higgins advised as part of their “duty of care to her”.

He agreed with Lehrmann’s barrister, Matthew Richardson, SC, that it would not be appropriate for Higgins as a complainant or source to “dictate” who should be contacted for comment, but he said he did not think she did.

The court heard that all requests for comment were made after about 2.30pm on Friday, February 12, 2021, and specified a deadline of 10am on Monday, February 15. The Project interview aired that night.

Lisa Wilkinson and her legal team including barrister Sue Chrysanthou, SC, in the Federal Court in Sydney on Monday.Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

The introduction to The Project interview referred to “a young woman forced to choose between her career and the pursuit of justice”. The court has heard that the government said in a statement to Ten that Higgins was told she would be supported if she chose to make a police complaint and there would be “no impact on her career”.

Meakin said that he believed the introduction implied that Ten was “believing her [Higgins’] story more than the government’s”.

He said he did not believe the government’s response was “buried at all”.

Toxicologist gives evidence

Forensic toxicologist Dr Michael Robertson, who prepared an expert report at Ten’s request, also gave evidence on Monday.

Forensic toxicologist Dr Michael Robertson.Credit: Edwina Pickles

Dr Matt Collins, KC, acting for Ten, had previously told the court that Robertson expressed the opinion that a woman of Higgins’ age and weight who had drunk 13 vodka-based drinks between 7.25pm and 1.30am with no non-alcoholic drinks and limited food likely had a blood alcohol concentration at 2.15am of about 0.23 per cent. Collins said that was “about five times, a bit under five times, the legal limit” for driving.

Robertson viewed CCTV footage of Higgins at The Dock hotel in Canberra on March 22, 2019, in the hours before the alleged rape. At about 10pm Higgins was shown stumbling, the court heard, and in Robertson’s opinion this was consistent with having a blood alcohol level potentially between 0.08 and 0.11. He agreed there were no overt signs of gross intoxication.

Lee asked Robertson about his reference in the report to impaired judgment, and when this “kicks in”.

“Once the blood alcohol concentration rises, the impaired judgment … becomes more and more impacted,” Robertson said. “It’s not black and white, but it is a continuum.”

He said at 0.1 per cent a person would “generally look … OK” albeit affected by alcohol, but at 0.15 and then 0.2 per cent the ability of most people to make well-considered decisions “becomes more and more impaired”.

“You’re still able to make decisions,” he said.

“We’re not talking about confusion; inability to know where you are. We’re not talking to that extent.”

Expert lip-reader

Ten has flown the UK-based lip-reader Tim Reedy to Sydney to give evidence as part of its defence, and he will be cross-examined on Tuesday.

CCTV showing Bruce Lehrmann and Brittany Higgins at The Dock in Canberra on March 22, 2019.Credit: Spotlight, Channel Seven

Lee ruled this month that Ten could tender a report in which Reedy expresses an opinion on words spoken by Lehrmann and Higgins at The Dock on March 22, 2019. Reedy’s opinion is based on an analysis of CCTV footage from The Dock.

Lee made clear that his ruling allowing the report to be admitted in evidence was not an indication of the weight he would ultimately place on the opinions expressed in it.

The lawsuit

Lehrmann is suing Ten and Wilkinson over an interview with Higgins, aired on The Project on February 15, 2021, that he alleges defames him by suggesting he is guilty of raping Higgins in the office of their boss, Reynolds.

He has always maintained his innocence.

Lehrmann not named

Lehrmann was not named in Ten’s interview and a preliminary issue in the case is whether he was identified because of the details provided in the broadcast, including the fact that the alleged perpetrator had worked in Reynolds’ office.

Meakin said on Monday that “we did take advice on how far we could go without being guilty of identifying Mr Lehrmann”.

Bruce Lehrmann and his legal team leave the Federal Court in Sydney on Friday.Credit: Dominic Lorrimer

If the court finds Lehrmann was identified in the interview, Ten and Wilkinson are seeking to rely on defences of truth and qualified privilege.

Sexual assault charge dropped

Lehrmann’s ACT Supreme Court trial for sexual assault was aborted last year due to juror misconduct. The charge against Lehrmann was later dropped altogether owing to concerns about Higgins’ mental health.

Michaela Whitbourn is a legal affairs reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.Connect via Twitter.
Clare Sibthorpe is a crime reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.


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