Revelations from the ACT Inquiry about Heidi Yates’ successful coup.
by Bettina Arndt
Will Brittany Higgins ever be prepared to step out of the limelight? Having claimed she could never work again Higgins, presumably along with her big stash of compensation, this week popped up in Geneva posing in Gucci heels in front of the UN building where she has started an internship. Julia Gillard’s feminist network, which got her the gig, clearly has no problem with the fact that this woman has been exposed as a lying, malicious dropkick who plotted to use her dubious rape accusation to bring down a government. It reminds me of the high-flyers who happily hobnobbed with Jeffrey Epstein even after his evil behaviour was becoming known.
But such nonsense aside, we are all awaiting the report of the ACT inquiry into the handling of the Higgins case which is due to be released at the end of this month. Before the news hits about what the very impressive Commissioner Walter Sofronoff concluded about this toxic mess of a trial, it’s timely to consider what the extraordinary inquiry has revealed about what was really going on.
The long month of hearings was quite a show. Who could resist watching the cocky prosecutor Drumgold get his comeuppance, forced into taking extended leave after his wrong-doing was exposed day after day? Or the argy bargy between our country’s top barristers, jostling to protect key witnesses. And, of course, the revelations about Higgins and her sleazy boyfriend bullying the police. All vastly entertaining but hardly the main game.
The story that really matters is what the inquiry revealed about the stinking ideological swamp that has engulfed our criminal law system. Hobbling of police officers, rewriting rules of evidence, secret committees forcing all rape cases through to court. Here was the new victim-centred justice system fully on display, showing utter contempt for the presumption of innocence or rights of the accused.
But the real revelation was the key role played in this new system by the ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates who had police and prosecutors dancing to her tune – her victim support role a cover for her far more ambitious objective of remaking the way the criminal justice system handles sexual assault.
Yates’ antics had me reeling since they exposed just how completely a criminal law system can be subverted when placed in the hands of an ideologue.
We had all witnessed this po-faced creature, trotting every day into court alongside Brittany Higgins – an act which Bruce Lehrmann’s lawyer, Steve Whybrow described as like wearing a “Bruce is guilty” t-shirt. This woman is a lawyer, yet we saw her standing by while Higgins ignored the judge’s contempt of court rules to spew out an attack on Lehrmann and the justice system after the case was declared a mistrial.
We didn’t know half of it. What’s gobsmacking is the inquiry revealed that Higgins had prepared that statement in advance and shown it to Yates. (And to Drumgold!) Sofronoff was clearly incredulous that, in that circumstance, Yates just stood by and let Higgins deliver that speech. “Did it cross your mind that amongst the things she would say would be words to the effect that, ‘Bruce Lehrmann is guilty?’” he asked.
Yates responded that she was simply concerned about getting Higgins through her stressful day and wasn’t focused on her speech. Yates had made arrangements for how and where Higgins would deliver that speech yet when the inquiry’s counsel put to her that it was “problematic for you as Victim of Crime Commissioner to stand next to her publicly when she made those comments,” Yates said she hadn’t thought about it.
When asked whether in retrospect she should have acted differently, she said “she would not have made a different decision” about accompanying Higgins to court. This woman appears to be a zealot, totally convinced that her cause outweighs legal principles. And indeed, of the right of Higgins to trample all over Bruce Lehrmann’s presumption of innocence.
As well as the Victims of Crime Commissioner, Yates is a member of the ACT Human Rights Commission – dual roles which you might have thought would cause some conflict. But Yates explained to the Inquiry she had that sorted. She proudly described how, in 2021, after extensive policy work and consultation, the ACT had introduced a Charter of Rights, which promotes new rights for complainants designed “to balance” classic human rights – presumably like the presumption of innocence and right to a fair trial.
The Charter of Rights tilts the scales firmly in the complainant’s favour. “In practical terms we start from a position of belief,” Yates explained. Belief in the woman’s story.
She added, “If they are telling us that they have suffered harm because of an offence, we believe that in the first instance.” Well, not just in the first instance. Yates apparently clung to her belief in Higgins story even after the police’s extensive investigation revealed her evidence didn’t stack up, and after Higgins’ lies were exposed in cross-examination.
Charged with her mission, Yates used the new Charter of Rights to claim a central role in the investigation leading up to the trial. There are any number of examples of how she manipulated standard procedures to thwart the police investigation:
- She inserted herself as an unwelcome intermediary between Higgins and the police. According to Detective Superintendent Scott Moller who ran the criminal investigations unit, police felt “Ms Yates was speaking for Ms Higgins and not allowing Ms Higgins to speak”.
- Yates used her Charter of Rights to demand updates on the investigation, and discussed with Drumgold whether he should bypass the police and charge Lehrmann himself.
- Yates objected to Moller telling Higgins she threatened the investigation by talking to the media. “She can’t stop. She’s the face of the movement now,” Yates told him.
- The Charter of Rights was used to persuade police to allow Higgins to be shown CCTV vision bending normal rules which prevent evidence being shown to witnesses.
- She acted as a conduit for Higgins’ boyfriend, David Sharaz, passing on his email message to police threatening to go to the media if Lehrman wasn’t charged.
- She used Drumgold to thwart Moller’s efforts to contact Higgins directly – police were barred from any interaction with Higgins after Lehrmann was charged.
- She briefed Higgins prior to meetings with politicians on advocacy for sexual abuse victims.
This was just a lead-up to the roll out of a whole new system of “victim-centric, trauma-informed justice” which Yates boasted on ABC radio would “reverberate around the nation.”
(Two months ago I wrote about the abundant evidence demolishing the whole notion of trauma-informed practice, as spelt out in a Centre for Prosecutor Integrity report on “trauma-informed junk science” which quotes an Air Force Office of Special Investigations assessment dismissing such approaches as based on “flawed science” and quoting numerous negative evaluations in journal articles and expert commentary.)
Behind the scenes during the police investigations, pressure from the Higgins-inspired March4Justice led to the establishment of a Sexual Assault, Prevention and Response Steering Committee (SAPR), to cook up recommendations for stitching up accused men. They announced a taskforce to review all ACT decisions since 2015 where alleged perpetrators had ended up not being charged and new procedures to be followed in the future which in effect can ensure all cases are pushed through to court.
Naturally Yates was part of the steering committee responsible for the SAPR, which consulted with, amongst other feminist groups, the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, where Yates’ mother had worked.
No one looking back at Yates’ work history would be surprised by her indifference to men’s rights. She had years of advocacy for LGBTQI organisations and women’s legal groups before working for ACT Legal Aid, which she headed up just prior to taking in her current roles. It’s hardly surprising then, that Bruce Lehrmann was told by ACT Legal Aid that their lawyers weren’t prepared to allow Higgins “to be challenged in court as a liar” and that they wouldn’t use Steve Whybrow as a barrister because he was too aggressive.
That’s the climate Federal police were facing when investigating the Higgins case. Their bosses knew the push was on to find they were undercharging – and sure enough SAPR’s taskforce came up with shockingly low charging rates for the ACT, which police lawyers revealed during the inquiry to be based on wrong data. It was clear the traditional investigatory work required of police was being downgraded, and the police encountered increasing hostility, with Drumgold making comments to the jury in the trial about their poor skill sets and claiming they were boof-heads, with outdated, stereotyped opinions.
It was enlightening during the inquiry watching these police officers being cross-examined by hostile barristers, as they staunchly defended their right to do the work of determining whether there was sufficient evidence to charge Lehrmann. There was a senior officer who threatened to resign if Lehrmann was charged. And the intriguing diary note from the big boss, Policing Commander Michael Chew, apparently commenting on some of Higgins’ evidence: “Everything else is made up.” Naturally he was forced by the lawyers to deny that was the case.
But also chilling to see these officers, particularly Moller who seems a good bloke, forced to mouth the platitudes required for this new feminist climate, giving assurances about the importance of Yates’ work, and the value of victim-centric, trauma-informed justice. One bizarre moment was when Yates’ lawyer, while working strenuously to force police to wind back their condemnation of Yates’ intervention in the case, paraded the fact that Yates had presented one of the officers with home-made biscuits. When you consider that Yates’ mission appears to have been to do police investigators out of a job, this struck me as rather like offering a final fag before the firing squad.
They did their job but it was obvious this showcase was going to trial. Politicians, women’s groups, and the media were baying for blood. And they had Drumgold making it clear he intended to prosecute the case, no matter what.
So, while Bruce Lehrmann and his lawyers were preparing for the criminal trial, police involved with sexual assault cases were discovering their world had changed. The full impact of SAPR’s meddling was revealed when they were advised by Drumgold of a significant change to the charging threshold – a far lower test for the decision to take a case to trial. Police were informed that the mere fact that the suspect had been interviewed could be sufficient to result in charging. No longer were police to reach their own decision about whether a case had legs. No need for cogent evidence or thorough investigations. A woman’s “truth” would be all that is required.
Indeed, it looks as though we have reached the frightening position where a rape case should go to trial even if investigators do not believe a complainant, i.e. that they conclude there was no offence committed. Somehow it is considered that a jury could still find such a case proven beyond reasonable doubt. (It would be interesting to see how this sits with the High Court.)
Since the Higgins case ended, the full extent of the new regime has been revealed with the establishment of a Criminal Investigations Management Committee overseeing all charging decisions, which police told the inquiry seems intent on pushing all rape cases through to trial.
And now it all appears to be in place. The rights of any male facing a rape accusation in the ACT courts have well and truly been sacrificed on the altar of feminist ideology. The full extent of this feminist capture of our justice system was on display during the inquiry but naturally passed unnoticed in the media coverage.
It’s uncertain whether Sofronoff’s report will even touch on this critical issue, given his tight terms of reference. In his opening remarks Sofronoff commented that “a public inquiry is a powerful engine for getting at the truth, but an inquiry must not just uncover the truth; it must tell the community about it.” Let’s hope the Commissioner finds a way to address the truth that so many are determined to ignore.