Senate debates

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Members of Parliament: Staff

3:17 pm

Photo of Ben SmallBen Small (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

It's tough, it really is tough, to confront the circumstances in which this parliament, as a whole, finds itself in the wake of these revelations. I come to this place as a new senator and one who has worked in the private sector for quite some time, where, rightly, the focus is on the health, safety and security of all employees, because as Australians we rightly expect to be safe in the workplace. I think the response we've seen this week from the government, from the Prime Minister down, has been one aimed at upholding that very fundamental position.

The reports we've been dealing with relating to the events of 2019 are rightly felt, not only by the people in this place but by the people of Australia, to be deeply distressing. Throughout the entire process, however, I think it would be obvious to any fair-minded person that the overriding concern has been to support Ms Higgins, to empower Ms Higgins and to respect the privacy of Ms Higgins. That said, as much as the government's response has thus far been made clear, it is also clear that more is to be done. The Prime Minister has immediately undertaken that we will undertake two separate inquiries aimed at addressing the culture and the environment of work in this place. Celia Hammond, the member for Curtin, a previous vice-chancellor of the University of Notre Dame, has long and extensive experience of managing these sorts of issues in an institutional setting. Let's not forget, Madam Deputy President, that these are not partisan political issues but fundamentally human issues, so the fact that we have an inquiry, led by the member for Curtin, aimed at ensuring that the standards, expectations, practices and processes in this place can be improved is something that I think we all take heart from.

Stephanie Foster, the deputy secretary of the department of PM&C, will also be undertaking a review, and this could include referrals to the finance department, obviously at arm's length from the partisan politics of the day. In relation to this, the Prime Minister has been clear that we shouldn't presume the conclusions of those reviews. Indeed, we should be focused on ensuring that the people that work in this place get the support that they need, even in the most extreme circumstances, as has clearly been the subject of matters exposed this week.

In relation to all aspects of employment, and that includes the terrible events that we've had to confront, there needs to be a change. The Prime Minister has been clear about that. But that will be a matter of good faith inquiry, which the government has committed to. The Prime Minister himself has committed to ensuring that that will be the outcome that this government upholds.

In that spirit, we saw the Minister for Defence unreservedly apologise to Ms Higgins. Minister Reynolds was in fact the first woman to achieve the rank of brigadier in the Army Reserve. Today we heard from Minister Cash. Minister Cash, despite being a trailblazer in industrial relations legal practice before coming to the Senate, has also been the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women and the Minister for Women. That was a heartfelt moment that we saw today frankly, and I think that it goes to the heart of the fact that on this side of the chamber we seek only to uphold the dignity, the privacy, the integrity and the rights of those who come to work in this place with the very legitimate expectation of staying safe. So, I think it is clear that the government's response is aimed only at the right things, and that we will abstain from any involvement in party politics. The reviews undertaken are non-partisan, across parliament and aimed at absolute integrity. We can do better. We must do better. We have been clear about that. And I look forward to seeing the outcomes.


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