Senate debates

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Members of Parliament: Staff

3:02 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Defence (Senator Reynolds) to questions without notice asked today.

I begin by reminding senators of an important statement:

Any complaint of violence—either verbal, physical or sexual—must always be taken seriously, particularly when, as members of parliament, we must be setting the standard for members of the community.

This was a statement made by the Minister for Defence, Senator Reynolds, in June 2018. Senator Reynolds was expressing what I think we all agree is the standard the community expects. But standards only matter if they are upheld—and that is the test. When you claim to have standards that you don't act on, you send a signal. The signal you send is this: that there really are no standards, that there are no consequences, not for those who engage in violent acts, not for those who fail to take violent acts seriously.

This week, the community has not seen the standard it expects met at the highest level of the government. Indeed, Senator Reynolds has had the opportunity to lead by example. And I compare her behaviour in this place and her actions previously with the response that we had from Minister Cash today, who was prepared to stand and speak of her offer of support to report this matter to police, her offer to sit with the complainant when doing so, and who did not refuse to answer questions in this place about what she did. Instead, Senator Reynolds did not lead by example, and she let a woman down badly—a woman to whom she had a duty of care.

We know from the courageous public testimony from Ms Higgins this week that she did not feel supported when she told her minister she had been raped by a colleague. Ms Higgins says she was given the choice as to whether she was going to give up on her career. She was told by her superiors she could go to the police, but they also added: 'We need to know ahead of time. We need to know now.' She said she realised this alleged act of sexual violence in the minister's office was being seen as a 'political issue', a political problem. She said she 'realised my job is on the line'. So, rather than give up on her dream job, she agreed to be sent to Western Australia where she was 'just alone. It was really hard.' Where was Senator Reynolds while Ms Higgins was struggling through this? I will use Ms Higgins's own words to describe that: 'She did sort of actively try and avoid me as much as possible. She didn't like me coming to her events. She didn't like me going to things with her. I think I made her uncomfortable.' And Senator Reynolds never again raised with Ms Higgins the alleged rape in her office. In his Higgins's words: 'It was this taboo thing. It was never spoken about again.'

Eventually the trauma of the alleged rape and its handling left Ms Higgins feeling she had to leave the workplace. But less than a year before that alleged rape in her office, when some Liberal women parliamentarians said they had been bullied over the Liberal leadership, Senator Reynolds stood in this place and said:

Some of the behaviour I simply do not recognise and I think has no place in my party … I cannot condone … what has happened to some of my colleagues …

…   …   …

… I do not recognise my party at the moment.

I think many Australians will find those words jarring, to say the least, given Senator Reynolds's actions. Anyone who has read the reporting by Samantha Maiden and others about the wrenching ordeal Ms Higgins has gone through, anyone who watched Ms Higgins's interview with Lisa Wilkinson, can see in her face and hear in her words the painful consequences. These are the consequences of standards not being upheld. It is not Ms Higgins who has not upheld the standards, but it is Ms Higgins who has paid for the consequences of the actions and failures of others—failures of the Prime Minister, failures of Minister Reynolds, the minister who is responsible for the defence of the nation. So, Madam Deputy President, I ask this: what are the consequences for Minister Reynolds?


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