Once more unto the den: Lehrmann cops a mauling

The cyclonic wind that whistled across the nation at 1:15pm last Monday was the exhalation of a thousand sighs of blessed relief as survivors, women and their allies digested Justice Lee’s stark finding:

“Mr Lehrmann raped Ms Higgins.”

Justice Lee’s impressively exhaustive and winningly acerbic account of what happened on that fateful night and its immediate aftermath laid out an empathetic trauma-informed account of the impact that infamous 45 minutes had on Brittany Higgins in the ensuing days as she tried to come to terms with the dreadful thing that had happened to her: that she had been raped, and the rape was perpetrated by a senior colleague in her workplace, the nation’s Parliament.

The judgment confirmed Bruce Lehrmann as the latest member of the club of hubristic men who believe their reputations can be quarantined from their shameful acts and treat the courts as a convenient tool to spin their false narratives.

The judgment also brings shame on those who, over the last two years, put Brittany Higgins in the dock rather than her rapist, belittling and besmirching her, impugning her honesty, integrity and motives to advance their own nasty agendas. One might profess surprise that Channel 7 and The Australian elected to become cheerleaders for and underwriters of a rapist were it not entirely in keeping with past practice, practices that perpetuate toxic stereotypes that women are prepared to invent stories about being raped to advance their own causes, and can rely on hordes of “feminazis” to support them in the public realm.

Even now these rape cultural warriors come for Brittany Higgins, pivoting swiftly from questioning her rape, to claiming she defrauded the Commonwealth with her cover-up claim, insisting her settlement should be investigated and preferably voided, and the money paid back. Because while Justice Lee found Brittany compelling when she gave her version of what happened that night in the Ministerial suite, he was less persuaded by her belief she had been forced to choose between her job and justice, and that her bosses sought to prevent her from continuing her complaint. 

The cover-up allegation was long on speculation but short on facts, wrote Lee, and trying to particularise it was “like trying to grab a column of smoke”. But whilst The Project may have earned the judicial criticism it copped for playing up the “roadblocks to a police investigation” it said were deliberately placed in Brittany’s path to justice, this does not mean that the Government or the Department of Finance’s response was without fault and that Brittany does not deserve compensation for their failings. Brittany was right when she said she was treated as a political problem to be managed. Fiona Brown detailed the extreme pressure she was placed under to unilaterally report the rape to the AFP without Brittany’s knowledge or consent, an exercise in Ministerial attempted arse-covering across the board. Both Minister Reynolds and the Special Minister of State Alex Hawke were, noted Justice Lee, “intent on protecting their own interests at the expense of allowing a young woman to make her own decision”. 

Players all throughout this omnishambles were focussed on avoiding political scandal and moving on from the issue as quickly as possible. Fiona Brown, a woman praised by Justice Lee for her courage in refusing the comply with the orders from Reynolds and Hawke to go to the police, was described as a “successful professional administrator of a certain age and disposition” with “a conservative outlook” who “conducted herself in a careful and (generally) risk averse way” with a “guarded personality”. She would only concede under questioning from Lee that, knowing that “young people, intoxicated, come back by themselves to an office, drinking whisky, someone wakes up naked”, and after Brittany had told her, “I remember him being on top of me”, that sex “was a possibility. Consensual, non-consensual, you couldn’t rule it in, couldn’t rule it out”.

Justice Lee noted that, while Fiona Brown may have done her “professional best” to support Brittany, she “could have done things differently” and may not have been “as empathetic as some others”. Yet Fiona Brown, consulting with others behind the scenes, was the only representative of her employer that was tasked with providing any support at all to Brittany after she was raped in her workplace by a colleague. Less than a week after the rape rape took place, Brown was advised by her Department of Finance contact Lauren Barons that “the steps she had taken were appropriate” and by April 5, a fortnight after the drinks at the Dock, Brown stated in her affidavit she “understood responsibility for the matter was in the hands of the police” and she never spoke to Brittany of the rape again. When Brittany ultimately decided not to continue with a police complaint about her assault, Brown concluded that meant no assault had occurred.

It is for this institutional lack of support, this incurious, box-ticking, arse-covering approach, that Brittany was awarded a financial settlement by the Commonwealth. Whilst no liability was admitted in the Deed of Settlement, it is abundantly clear that Brittany was left to struggle with the trauma of her workplace rape on her own, without any formal support and with a lot of people running for cover. Justice Lee notes that the “perceived systemic issues as to avenues of complaint and support services in Parliament” for employees “may have merited a form of fact-based critique”. Whilst Lee criticised the “insufficiently scrutinised and factually misconceived” approach of The Project, it was only after Brittany’s story went public that the systemic issues relating to employment conditions and employee support in Parliament House were tackled. Without her decision to talk to Samantha Maiden and The Project, there would be no Set the Standard report, no Parliamentary Workplace Support Service and no implementation of the 55 recommendations from the Respect@Work report. For her efforts, Brittany was backgrounded against by the Prime Minister’s Office, called a “lying cow” and a jacket thief by the Minister of Defence, and subjected to such unceasing abuse from a media led by Channel 7 and The Australian intent upon feting her rapist that she has literally been driven out of the country.

The atrocious ideological interventions into this case by Janet Albrechtsen that rendered the enquiry into the ACT criminal proceedings completely worthless and led to its Chair being referred to the ACT anti-corruption watchdog have not stopped The Australian from now insisting Brittany’s Settlement should be referred to the NACC. The fact that Linda Reynolds has been shown to have been a self-interested boss and a suspiciously unreliable witness at Lehrmann’s criminal trial has not stopped her from claiming victimhood and pursuing her former employee for defamation – a now judicially-determined rape survivor with fragile mental health who has been hospitalised on multiple occasions for suicidal ideation – because her feelings were hurt by a tweet. One might have thought this week’s careful, considered and comprehensive findings would give Albrechtsen, Reynolds and their torrid band of supporters pause for thought.

Let them read Justice Lee’s judgment, and then the bloody room, and leave Brittany Higgins the fuck alone.

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