The questioning that made Bruce Lehrmann’s brain freeze

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The barrister for Network Ten took Bruce Lehrmann by the hand and led him into the weeds, and the further they ventured, the more that the former Liberal staffer’s brain began to freeze.

First there were the different accounts he gave about the reason he returned to Parliament House on the night he is alleged to have raped his then colleague Brittany Higgins in March 2019.

He told his chief-of-staff Fiona Brown when she quizzed him about it a few days afterwards that he had returned to his office to drink whisky. He told the police two years later that he had gone back to do some work. He told Channel Seven’s Spotlight program that the police version was true.

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

He told the court in which he is currently suing Network Ten for defamation that he had lied to Brown about the whisky because she had recently admonished him for a separate security breach, and he believed she would have taken less kindly to him returning to the office to work than going in to access his alcohol.

“But why?” Ten’s barrister Matthew Collins KC asked Lehrmann.

“If I had said I’d accessed documents at that time, Fiona Brown would have taken the view that was very serious,” he said. “I was not prepared to take that risk.”

Higgins’ account of that evening has been relentlessly scrutinised, in media interviews, speeches and Lehrmann’s aborted criminal trial. She claims that Lehrmann raped her on the couch in the office of their boss, Senator Linda Reynolds. Lehrmann has launched defamation proceedings against Network Ten for airing the claims, as well as journalist Lisa Wilkinson, who sported a Kermit-green suit to watch day three of the proceedings.

Journalist Lisa Wilkinson left the Federal Court on Friday flanked by her barrister, Sue Chrysanthou, and Ten’s barrister Matthew Collins.Credit: James Brickwood

But this has exposed him to rigorous public scrutiny for the first time. He adopted the approach taken by most defendants at his criminal trial and chose not to give evidence, so his version of events has only been aired in a limited way: the pieces of his police interview that were pulled out for the jury at his criminal trial, and a paid interview on Seven’s Spotlight program.

Cross-examining Lehrmann on Friday, Collins turned next to the items he had on his person when he left work earlier in the evening of March 22, 2019. Lehrmann told his own barrister on Wednesday that when he left the office, he had only intended to have a couple of beers at the Kingston Hotel and head back to work. That was why he had to go back to Parliament House on his way home – because he didn’t have his keys on him. Then he had spotted some question time folders and decided to do some work.

Why then, Collins asked, had he not brought his work security pass with him?

“It happens,” Lehrmann replied.

Then it came to the consumption of alcohol at The Dock Hotel, where Lehrmann and his colleague kicked on after the Kingston and met Higgins. He was certain in his evidence on Wednesday and Thursday that he had only bought one round of drinks for himself and his colleague. His bank records showed he had only spent $16 and he never used cash.

Bruce Lehrmann leaves the Federal Court on Friday.Credit: James Brickwood

But by Friday morning he was not certain about whether he bought Higgins a drink.

“Be very careful about it, Mr Lehrmann,” Collins warned.

Lehrmann floundered. Two rounds or two drinks? Perhaps he did buy her a drink. He decided to take up the judge’s offer of a break. “My mind is a blank at the moment,” Lehrmann said.

After a 15-minute break, he recalled that he had bought her a vodka.

Some CCTV footage served to jog his memory further. The footage showed Lehrmann buying several drinks with a card that he handed over the bar, and handing spirit-based drinks to Higgins. In one frame, he pushed three drinks to the corner of a table nearest to her.

Collins suggested to Lehrmann that he said: “All hers, all hers.”

Brittany Higgins at the ACT Supreme Court last year. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

In another frame, he gestured towards a drink and Collins suggested that he said the words, “Drink it all, you can’t leave that, come on, you’re not leaving that”.

Lehrmann denied saying either of these things.

But when it came to his behaviour towards Higgins, Lehrmann’s story hardened. He denied putting his arm around Higgins and denied kissing her. Reminded that he had told police he could not recall if he had engaged in any intimate behaviour at all, he said that was because of the way the question had been framed. If there was any flirtation with Higgins it was “very minimal”, he said. “Nothing that would indicate an attraction.”

“Your evidence to His Honour today is you have a crystal clear memory that you did not engage in any conduct that was intimate with Ms Higgins,” Collins clarified.

On this, they could agree.

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