Watching Bruce Lehrmann’s terrible, horrible, no good very bad days in the witness box at the start of his defamation case against Channel 10 and Lisa Wilkinson last week, one wonders if he was fully prepared for the difference between a cross-examination by Dr Matt Collins KC and a chequebook chat on Spotlight?
Finally required to explain the myriad inconsistencies between the different versions of his own story, the discrepancies between his stories and the accounts of others, as well as new ways in which CCTV footage from both Parliament House and a Canberra pub appeared to contradict his evidence to the court and, earlier, the Australian Federal Police, Lehrmann could not. Memory loss, conspiracy theories and far-fetched denials were the order of the day.
His testimony in chief described a casual Friday night at Canberra hotel, The Dock, where, over one or two beers, he spoke mostly with his friend Austin Wenke and Defence professionals on topics such as submarines and Air Force programs and had only “minimal interaction” with Brittany Higgins that was “professional and cordial”. He did not buy Brittany any drinks that night and his observation was that she was not unduly intoxicated at the end of it. He produced bank statements for his “only two cards” that showed he had spent just $16 at The Dock. An innocuous evening.
CCTV footage from the Dock’s security system told a different story. Dr Collins took Lehrmann through it in excruciating detail. Lehrmann was seen persistently hovering around Brittany Higgins from his arrival to their departure, leaving the main table for considerable periods to chat in a small group with her, fellow staffer Lauren Gain and his friend Austin Wenke. He was seen accompanying Brittany to the bar on multiple occasions and buying her drinks via EFTPOS. He was seen lining drinks up in front of her and enthusiastically gesticulating at them and her. He was seen being vigilant about her alcohol consumption, immediately passing her a full glass to replace the one she’d just drained. He was seen encouraging her to scull an unfinished drink she left on a table as the group prepared to leave.
How is it that the bank statements you provided to the police show expenditure of only $16?, he was asked by Dr Collins. The drinks purchased by card on your multiple trips to the bar would surely cost more than that at a trendy Canberra establishment? Bruce had no answer. You must have another card, he was pressed. No, Bruce insisted. But he had no explanation. Did you buy Brittany any drinks, Dr Collins asked repeatedly, with incriminating footage at the ready? Bruce couldn’t remember. He didn’t recollect doing so. He didn’t want to be definitive, being in the witness standard and all. His mind went blank. The court adjourned for him to gather himself.
One explanation of the missing expenditure might be that Lehrmann does indeed have another EFTPOS card, and he used it to buy the drinks with which he plied Brittany that night, but he understood that buying multiple drinks for Brittany undermined his account of only minimally interacting with her. So he lied and then gave the police and his trial jury deliberately misleading evidence to support his lies. When the court resumed after his brain freeze, Lehrmann confirmed that, his memory now “refreshed”, he had indeed bought Ms Higgins drinks that night. The provenance of the card with which he paid for them remained a mystery.
Dr Collins then took us to 88mph, a favourite of Bruce’s for a late night boogie. Here Brittany described herself as being so drunk that she did an almighty face plant and knew it was well past time to go home. In her interview with the AFP, Lauren Gain confirmed she observed Brittany fall over at the club and said that Lerhmann helped her up. Gain also said that Lehrmann got handsy with Brittany sitting next to her in a booth and she saw them pash.
Not true, Lerhmann asserted unequivocally when questioned by Dr Collins. Brittany didn’t fall over. He didn’t help her up. He didn’t put his arm around her. They didn’t pash.
Your evidence today is that you have “a crystal clear recollection” that you did not engage in any intimate conduct with Ms Higgins?, Dr Collins asked, reminding him that in his police interview two years ago he’d been vague, even cautious, advising police he “couldn’t recall” intimate conduct but the night in question even then “was a long time ago” and he may have been a “bit flirtatious”. More than two years later, his memory of that distant night is fully restored. None of it happened. And Lauren Gain? She invented her story to discredit him, motivation unknown.
Lauren Gain is not the only fellow staffer hostile enough towards Lehrmann to risk lying to the police. Linda Reynolds’ senior media adviser Nicola Hamer also apparently concocted evidence when she said Lehrmann had earlier expressed interest in Brittany Higgins, that he found her good looking, and that on March 2 he’d asked Hamer to message Higgins to join them for drinks, which she subsequently did. He denied Hamer’s account of his behaviour when Brittany tried to call an Uber, that he snatched her phone to compel her to stay longer and drink with him.
So many unexplained agendas.
The differing reasons Lehrmann gave for his late-night trip to Parliament House with Brittany Higgins in tow were finally probed.
The real reason he returned to Parliament House, Lehrmann told the AFP and the Court, was to collect forgotten keys. It would be “a process” for his girlfriend to let him in without keys. He preferred the process of getting into Parliament House at 1:00am whilst intoxicated without a pass.
To the security guards at Parliament House, he said he’d been instructed to pick up documents. He confessed to the police this was a lie, that he thought insinuating he was there at the request of Minister Reynolds was more likely to get him into the building.
Reynolds’ Chief of Staff Fiona Brown gave evidence that he’d told her he returned to the office to drink whiskey and that Brittany “had been fine when he left”.
Lerhmann denied to the police he’d ever said to Fiona Brown he’d gone back to work to drink, and stated he didn’t keep alcohol in the office. Why would Brown have said that then?, the AFP asked. Lehrmann couldn’t say. But as he didn’t keep alcohol in the office, he couldn’t have gone back there to drink it.
Dr Collins tendered video footage from Lehrmann’s own phone and other photos that showed assorted bottles of alcohol on or around his desks in the old and new offices of Senator Reynolds. Lehrmann’s memory was once again refreshed. He did keep alcohol in the office. So false evidence had been presented to the jury during his criminal trial?, asked Dr Collins. It was his best recollection at the time, Lehrmann averred. Justice Lee intervened to confirm his evidence. “Prior to being shown the photographs’ ‘ he asked with an impressive lack of incredulity, “you had no recollection of there being alcohol in the office?”.
“Yes, your Honour”, affirmed Lehrmann, and regardless, he didn’t return to the office that night to drink. It was to pick up his keys. And then he got distracted and decided to do some work. As one does after a night of solid drinking. When things from his chats with the Defence personnel were “fresh in (his) mind”. As they are after a night of solid drinking.
Why all the different stories?, asked Dr Collins. Why not just tell your boss you came back to get your keys? At the meeting to which he was summoned her tone was tense, Lerhmann said. His late-night entry was described as a security breach. “I was of a mindset that if I was to tell her that I was working on the question time briefs she might have taken that to be an even greater security breach, with flow-on effects”.
No-one knew what that meant. Justice Lee announced he required no further questions on the topic.
A more plausible explanation might be that he couldn’t tell his boss he’d been instructed to collect non-existent documents as she would know he hadn’t (and he’d left empty handed anyway). Once he insisted to the police he hadn’t seen Brittany after they entered the Minister’s suite (despite that, as we now know, her desk was next to his), he could also no longer claim they were there to drink whiskey and that “she’d been fine” when he left. A third story was necessary – forgotten keys! And because keys don’t take 40 minutes to collect, notes were said to have been jotted on Question Time briefs, conveniently handwritten so no log ins were necessary, but sufficiently engrossing that he was oblivious to the vibrations of multiple missed attempts by his girlfriend to reach him on his adjacent but on-silent phone.
Perhaps there was also a more plausible reason for his detour to Parliament House than those variously proffered? Brittany Higgins says Lehrmann offered her a lift home from 88bpm, and only en route said he had to stop by the office. She, a junior media adviser, had nothing that required her attention at 1:30am after a drunken night out and had intended to go straight home. After Ms Higgins’ allegations were made public, four other women came forward with their own stories of Bruce Lehrmann involving heavy drinking and unwanted sexual activity. One got off lightly when she was groped under a table at a dinner in 2017. A former Liberal Party intern accused him of raping her during the 2016 Federal Election campaign when she was a teenaged school-leaver volunteer. He bought her double vodkas and tequila shots all night, she said, and when she was so drunk she vomited, offered to “look after her” at his hotel “just around the corner”. She alleged he raped her as she laid passed out in his room, waking bleeding with him on top of her. A third woman alleged Lehrmann raped her in 2020, noting sadly that if Brittany’s accusations had been dealt with effectively in 2019, she may have been spared. “He kept buying me drinks, and I’m a lightweight when it comes to that… I was drunk and he just got on top of me, I said no, and then he was inside of me and I kept saying no.” Lehrmann’s flatmate in 2019-20 Kriti Gupta said his constant aggressive unwanted sexual advances when he came home after long bouts of drinking made her feel so unsafe in her own home that she barricaded her bedroom door to keep him out. He has since been charged with another count of rape following an incident in Toowoomba in October 2021.
Could another explanation for Lehrmann dragging an intoxicated and vulnerable Brittany Higgins back to Parliament House instead of shepherding her home as promised be that he hoped to indulge his alleged propensity to prey on young women he meets in political circles, and that upon arrival into the Ministerial suite, he took advantage of the drunken state he had so assiduously fostered in her and raped her, leaving her semi-conscious and half naked on a couch where she was later found by security? And that he’s consistently lied about that night and his earlier interactions with Ms Higgins ever since?
There are many questions to probe further this week, including why Channel 10 barristers have been able to put together a stronger case against Lehrmann than the AFP.
The case continues.