opinion

EDITORIAL: Justice Lee has given Australia the answers it needs

Editorial
The Nightly
3 Min Read
EDITORIAL: Hopefully, Justice Lee’s profound judgment on Bruce Lehrmann is the beginning of the end, and Australia can begin to heal.
EDITORIAL: Hopefully, Justice Lee’s profound judgment on Bruce Lehrmann is the beginning of the end, and Australia can begin to heal. Credit: Don Arnold/Getty Images

Three years after a young Liberal staffer came forward with the shocking allegation that she had been raped by a senior colleague at Parliament House, finally, Australia has a definitive answer as to what happened in that ministerial office.

Brittany Higgins, 24 on that night in 2019, was too drunk to understand what was going on or agree to any sexual activity. Bruce Lehrmann, then 23, was “so intent on gratification” that he was indifferent to that lack of consent.

“Mr Lehrmann raped Ms Higgins.”

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It fell to Justice Michael Lee to deliver those words. Not in a criminal court — the standards of proof are lower in civil proceedings and Mr Lehrmann has not been convicted of any offence — but by a civil standard, Mr Lehrmann is “guilty of a great wrong”.

It has been a long, bruising road to get to this point. Lives have been upended, reputations left in tatters and a great many lies and half-truths told.

The task of untangling that complex web, cutting through the many layers of self-interest and bullshit, is one so colossal it would be beyond the capabilities of most.

Justice Lee did it with humanity, empathy, and a sizeable dollop of wit.

When he took aim, he didn’t miss.

As well as being a rapist, Mr Lehrmann’s “attachment to the truth was a tenuous one”.

Ms Higgins too, had “told untruths when it suited her”.

And Channel Ten had done “no proper investigation” into Ms Higgins’ allegations of rape before putting them to air.

One person in this sorry saga whose reputation Justice Lee sought to rehabilitate was Fiona Brown, then-Senator Linda Reynolds’ chief-of-staff and boss to both Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgins.

Far from being complicit in a politically-motivated cover-up, Ms Brown had acted with integrity and “at some risk to her professional career” when she resisted pressure from higher up to report Ms Higgins’ allegations to the police against Ms Higgins’ wishes. Ms Brown’s primary motivation was to protect Ms Higgins’ autonomy and welfare, and “to be later vilified as an unfeeling apparatchik willing to throw up roadblocks in covering up criminal conduct at the behest of one’s political overlords must be worse than galling,” Justice Lee said.

While Ms Brown may not have had the empathy of others or the “acute sensitivity of many millennials” in her dealings with Ms Higgins, she acted only with compassion and common sense. This saga has taken a great personal toll on Ms Brown. It ended her long and distinguished career of public service and, as she told The Australian last year, left her contemplating suicide.

The justice system cops a lot of criticism. For being unfeeling and inflexible, for exacerbating the trauma of victims.

And while it’s important to call out its failings, it’s also important to salute it when it gets it right. This is one of those instances.

This has been an undignified chapter of Australian history, ruinous to many. Some are still left to play out — Ms Reynolds’ defamation case against Ms Higgins is set to go to trial in July. Mr Lehrmann has more allegations of rape against him.

But hopefully, Justice Lee’s profound judgment is the beginning of the end.

Responsibility for the editorial comment is taken by The Nightly Editor-in-Chief Anthony De Ceglie.

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