Yet another front page of The Australian (Weekend, June 10/11, 2023) devoted almost entirely to the disastrous fallout from Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations and subsequent abandoned trial, reveals how staffer Fiona Brown’s good deeds didn’t go unpunished…
Continuing their forensic investigation, Janet Albrechtsen and Stephen Rice report the first interview with Fiona Brown, the much-maligned chief of staff in Senator Reynolds’ office. Maligned not by Reynolds, but just about everyone else. Below are selected extracts from the extensive reports published in The Weekend Australian:
Ms Brown said the most senior figures in the Prime Minister’s Office failed to support her after she was wrongly accused by Ms Higgins of failing to help her, a claim weaponised by Labor to attack Mr Morrison. “It all becomes about the survival of the PM,” Ms Brown said.
Both Ms Brown and Senator Reynolds have steadfastly denied the allegations, saying Ms Higgins made no allegation of rape or assault and that when she ultimately hinted at some kind of sexual activity they immediately arranged for her to talk to police.
On February 18, 2021, Anthony Albanese asked Mr Morrison during question time whether he had spoken to Ms Brown about Ms Higgins’ claim her job had been threatened. Mr Morrison said he had. Ms Brown said that was not true and after that question time, the then-prime minister had approached her and said “we’ve spoken, haven’t we”. Even worse, she said, was the accusation she first heard on The Project: that she had helped cover up a rape. “The worst thing you can say about a woman is to say she walked past another woman’s rape,” she said. “And that interview with Lisa Wilkinson framed me as a rape apologist.”
True to form, Brown entered the ACT Supreme Court far from the heaving media pack, around the back, from Vernon Circle, Canberra’s famous ring road. She took the stand in courtroom Number 3 at 10.41am on October 11.
Over the course of the day, until she was excused as a witness just after 2pm, the senior staffer would not be given the chance to counter the most serious allegations against her.
Brown could at least set the record straight about the CCTV footage when asked during cross-examination by Steven Whybrow whether she had ever seen the footage of Higgins walking into Parliament House in the early hours of March 23, 2019. Brown was emphatic. “I’ve never seen the footage.” Did the CCTV footage ever come up in conversation? “No. Never.” In yet another twist, Higgins would see the footage before Brown, when AFP Detective Superintendent Scott Moller agreed to show her it after her persistent requests in the lead up to the trial.
“You’ve been absolutely incredible and I’m so appreciative.”
Brown saw the controversial footage for the first time when it was shown on the Seven Network’s Spotlight interview with Lehrmann last Sunday night (June 4, 2023). The CCTV footage shows Higgins smiling and skipping through the corridor after she has gone through security, with little sign of the high level of drunkenness she had claimed. The trial also allowed Brown to explain her support for Higgins. She recounted how she asked Higgins during the first meeting: “Are you OK? Has something happened that you didn’t want to happen? I get up and walk over and I say: ‘Do you want to sit down? Can I get you a cup of tea?’ No. ‘A glass of water?’ No. ‘Would you like to make a complaint?’ And she shakes her head to say no…”
On June 7, 2019, after the re-election of the Morrison government, Higgins sent Brown a message: “I wanted to say this in person but – I cannot overstate how much I’ve valued your support and advice throughout this period. You’ve been absolutely incredible and I’m so appreciative.”
Just before the trial paused for lunch, Brown broke down in tears when Whybrow read out the text message that Higgins had sent her former boss thanking her for her support. After Brown was excused, and the jury left the room, Whybrow told the Chief Justice that Higgins had deleted the text from her phone. [But Brown’s phone was not required by police, hence it remains as evidence of its existence. ]
Brown says hearing Higgins’ text, recognising her support for the young woman, was a “reminder” of that time compared to where Brown found herself 2½ years later, portrayed and persecuted as a villain. “It was jarring, it was so obvious that the chasm between the two [periods in her life] was so deep,” she says. When Higgins returned to the stand, on October 14, having a break for mental health reasons, she told the jury that Brown and Reynolds said “they would pay me out the entirety of the election to go to the Gold Coast, but that … I would never have a job again”.
Brown was distressed by what she says was a false assertion by Higgins that she had been induced by an offer of public funds by Brown. “I felt that was an accusation of corruption.” But once again, Brown was denied the ability to correct the record. She emailed the DPP’s office that same day, pointing out that she had been misrepresented by Higgins. Brown wanted her to be recalled. She didn’t – receive a reply.
Six months later, the Sofronoff Inquiry would hear that Brown’s email pointing out the discrepancy was never disclosed to Whybrow, meaning the defence was not given the chance to recall Brown. During the board of inquiry into the ACT justice system’s handling of the Lehrmann/Higgins matter, Whybrow described Brown as “the most important witness in this case because she’s the only person that had taken contemporaneous notes of what happened”. Worse was to come for Brown. During his closing remarks, the DPP used Brown’s breakdown in the witness box against her, implying some kind of guilt.