Wed, Oct 5, 2022 2:35 AM
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A former government staffer testified Wednesday about being raped by a colleague in the Australian Parliament House and described her fears of not being believed because of the disparity in their workplace statuses.
Brittany Higgins became the first witness to testify against Bruce Lehrmann, 27, who has pleaded not guilty in the Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court to a charge of sexual intercourse without consent in a minister’s office in March 2019. He faces a potential 12-year prison sentence if convicted.
The jury heard evidence from Higgins in person and watched video recordings of her two interviews with police in February and May last year.
Higgins said she was a 24-year-old staffer in an administrative role in then-Defense Industry Minister Linda Reynolds’ office while Lehrmann had a more senior role as a ministerial adviser.
The pair had gone back to Parliament House early one Saturday morning after a night of heavy drinking with colleagues. Higgins said she thought Lehrmann wanted to collect documents from Reynolds’ office, where she fell asleep on a couch and was awoken by Lehrmann raping her.
Higgins said she felt “trapped, not human” as Lehrmann hovered over her, grunting and making noise. She said she started crying and told him to stop but he continued.
She told police that when she returned to work Monday, two days after the alleged rape, she feared she would be fired because her and Lehrmann entering the minister’s office was flagged as a security breach.
“I knew what had happened to me was wrong, I knew I hadn’t consented,” she said.
She told police she didn’t think anyone would believe her story and figured Lehrmann’s words carried more weight than hers because of his more senior role.
“He was in the office on Monday. … He didn’t seem ashamed (or) upset,” Higgins said. “It just didn’t feel like something he wanted to address.”
On Tuesday after the alleged assault, Higgins said she was questioned by one of her superiors on why she had visited the office on the weekend. She told police when she identified the incident as a sexual assault to her former chief of staff, “the gears shifted.”
“It became less about me and more political, in a sense,” she said.
While her rape allegation was recorded, Higgins did not make a victim statement to police until 2021, after she quit her government job.
Defense lawyer Steven Whybrow told the jury Higgins’ allegations had not been tested or proven and Lehrmann denied having sex with her.
Higgins said Lehrmann had attempted to kiss her after a staff dinner weeks before the alleged rape. She said she “politely rebuffed” his advance and the pair never spoke about the moment again.
“I rebuffed the kiss mostly out of shock because I wasn’t anticipating it,” she told the court.
She said during her career in Parliament other men had made similar passes at her.
Higgins was allegedly raped only weeks before then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison set the date for the May 18 election that his conservative coalition won against expectations. Higgins said she was aware of the implications her allegations could have on the then-ruling Liberal Party “the whole way through.”
“I was so scared coming forward,” she said.
She conceded that her fear over damaging the party's election chances if her allegation was leaked to the media made it more difficult to verify her account later.
Prosecutor Shane Drumgold flagged more than 50 witnesses who could be called to give evidence during the trial, which is expected to last between four and six weeks.
Among the witnesses are Reynolds as well as former government ministers Michaelia Cash and Steven Ciobo.
The Associated Press does not usually identify alleged victims of sexual assault, but Higgins has chosen to identify herself in the media.
Morrison's coalition was voted out of office in May after nine years in power.
Higgins will continue to testify when the trial resumes Thursday.