'Hooked up', a 'feminist' fight: Staffers recall Higgins/Lehrmann exchanges

Tim Piccione
Updated December 6 2023 - 7:06pm, first published 12:21pm

The passage of time and levels of drunkenness have negatively affected the memories of several witnesses involved in the Parliament House rape case.

Despite the challenge posed, the Federal Court has now heard from multiple former government staffers with different recollections about key exchanges with Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann in early 2019.

Mr Lehrmann's civil proceedings against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson entered their 10th day on Wednesday, when further conflicting accounts were added to an already vehemently divided storyline.

"Ms Higgins has faced a level of personal attack I've not seen in 20 years of doing this work," said Shane Drumgold SC, the ACT's Director of Public Prosecutions.

The man is suing the parties for defamation over a 2021 The Project story, which aired Ms Higgins' allegation she was raped inside a ministerial office two years earlier.

'A real kiss'

Third to take to the witness box on Wednesday, as part of Ten and Ms Wilkinson's defence, was former staffer and current public servant, Lauren Gain.

Despite Mr Whybrow claiming Ms Gain's recollection of seeing Ms Higgins and Mr Lehrmann kissing at a nightclub was "not accurate, did not happen, there was no pash", the witness stood firm.

"I reject that. That is a memory that I have," she responded.

As she had during the ACT criminal trial last October, Ms Gain told the Federal Court she "observed them kiss".

"It was a real kiss ... it was not a peck, it was very much a kiss-kiss," she said, telling Ten's barrister, Matthew Collins KC, she had also seen the pair sitting close together and touching each other's legs.

Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann, pictured outside court and on CCTV footage of The Dock. Pictures by Gary Ramage, Karleen Minney, supplied
Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann, pictured outside court and on CCTV footage of The Dock. Pictures by Gary Ramage, Karleen Minney, supplied

The following morning, Ms Gain messaged a colleague and said: "Brittany hooked up with Bruce".

Mr Lehrmann has repeatedly denied the "pashing", as it has been referred to throughout the trial, or that he helped a drunk Ms Higgins up from a fall, as Ms Gain claimed she saw.

Earlier in the trial, Mr Lehrmann told the court he believed Ms Gain had colluded with Ms Higgins to give false evidence in his criminal proceedings and "pervert the course of justice".

The fourth person in attendance at Civic's 88mph on the night in question, hours before Ms Higgins claims being raped inside a ministerial office, also gave evidence on Wednesday afternoon.

Lisa Wilkinson arrives at the Federal Court last week with top defamation barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC. Picture AAP
Lisa Wilkinson arrives at the Federal Court last week with top defamation barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC. Picture AAP

As Ms Gain had told the court, Austin Wenke said he could not recall how he arrived at the nightclub or many of his interactions there due to the passing of time and his level of intoxication.

"Would it be fair to say, if you'd seen them kissing in front of you, that that would likely have been something that you would have remembered?" Steven Whybrow SC, representing Mr Lehrmann, asked.

Mr Wenke replied: "Possibly. But as I said I don't recall their interactions and it's been some time since that evening."

The man was clear he did not have a recollection of seeing the pair being intimate.

'Ganged up on'

Earlier on Wednesday, former media advisor to Senator Linda Reynolds, Nicole Hamer, gave evidence about March 2, 2019, weeks prior to the alleged rape.

The court previously heard Ms Hamer, Mr Lehrmann, Ms Higgins and fellow staffer Jesse Wotton drank together at The Kingston Hotel on the Saturday afternoon.

CCTV showing Bruce Lehrmann and Brittany Higgins drinking in a group at The Dock on March 22, 2019. Picture supplied
CCTV showing Bruce Lehrmann and Brittany Higgins drinking in a group at The Dock on March 22, 2019. Picture supplied

According to Ms Hamer, Mr Lehrmann asked her to invite Ms Higgins.

"He made a comment saying 'Brittany's good looking, can you reach out to her on Instagram and see if she's free to come to the pub'," Ms Hamer said.

Ms Higgins attended the pub but had to leave shortly after.

"Brittany picked up her phone to book an Uber and Bruce took her phone away as a bit of play. I guess to stop her from being able to book her Uber," Ms Hamer told the court.

"He said, 'Just stay for one more drink'."

Mr Lehrmann has denied these claims.

Civic nightclub 88mph. Picture by Sitthixay Ditthavong
Civic nightclub 88mph. Picture by Sitthixay Ditthavong

Ms Hamer said the phone was returned after a short time but that she got into a "heated" argument with Mr Lehrmann following Ms Higgins' departure.

"Bruce said that I'd overreacted in the way I'd spoken up and tried to defend Brittany, so I got quite defensive to that," Ms Hamer said.

The court heard Ms Hamer sent a letter of resignation to her minister boss that evening after the argument had been the last straw in a job she was growing to dislike.

She said Mr Lehrmann told her she "acted like a feminist" who always defended women.

"I felt like I was being ganged up on by Bruce," Ms Hamer said.

Mr Whybrow, who said the argument was actually with Mr Wotton, responded: "A gang of one?"

"I just felt uncomfortable," Ms Hamer, who later withdrew her resignation, replied.

'That's not something I recall'

But the court heard a different version of the Saturday afternoon drinks when then-government staffer and now-deputy director of Western Australia's Liberal Party, Jesse Wotton, took to the witness box.

"That's not something I recall," Mr Wotton responded when asked if either he or Mr Lehrmann had taken Ms Higgins' phone, preventing her from leaving.

MORE TRIAL COVERAGE:

What Mr Wotton did recall, however, was Mr Lehrmann told him Ms Higgins was attending The Kingston Hotel that day "at his invitation or request".

"Ms Higgins was coming down at his insistence," Mr Wotton told the court.

Mr Wotton also claimed it was he and a "quite passionate" Ms Hamer who had been primarily engaged in the "heated discussion" following Ms Higgins' departure from the pub.

Bruce Lehrmann, who is suing Lisa Wilkinson, middle, over an interview with Brittany Higgins. Pictures by Karleen Minney
Bruce Lehrmann, who is suing Lisa Wilkinson, middle, over an interview with Brittany Higgins. Pictures by Karleen Minney

"Ms Hamer was very upset and unhappy that she was of the view that Ms Higgins had left the hotel thinking that because she had left she wouldn't have a job in the minister's officer, and we had pressured her into staying for a drink," the witness said.

He agreed he would characterise Ms Hamer has having had a "serious overreaction" and that he recalled Mr Lehrmann as being mostly supportive of his argument in defence but not the instigator.

Truth defence

Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgins each previously spent multiple days in the witness box to repeatedly defend their accounts of what happened in the early hours of March 23, 2019.

Ten and Ms Wilkinson are expected to call several more witnesses, including security guards, police officers, expert witnesses and a rape crisis counsellor.

Parliament House, where Brittany Higgins claims she was raped in March 2019. Picture by Keegan Carroll
Parliament House, where Brittany Higgins claims she was raped in March 2019. Picture by Keegan Carroll

The media company and high profile journalist are attempting to prove the rape allegation is substantially true and that reporting it professionally was justified in the public interest.

Mr Lehrmann has always denied raping Ms Higgins in 2019 in the office of the then-defence industry minister and no findings have been made against him.

His criminal trial was aborted last year due to juror misconduct and the charge levelled at him was later dropped.

The trial continues.

  • Support is available for those who may be distressed. Phone Lifeline 13 11 14; Canberra Rape Crisis Centre 6247 2525.
Tim Piccione

Tim Piccione

Court reporter

Tim is a journalist with the Canberra Times covering the ACT courts. He came to the nation's capital via the Daily Advertiser in Wagga. Contact: tim.piccione@canberratimes.com.au.

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