Senate debates

Monday, 22 February 2021


Members of Parliament: Staff

10:10 am

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | Hansard source

I too rise to take note of Minister Reynolds's statement concerning the serious allegations raised by her former staff member Ms Brittany Higgins. As everyone in this place is aware, last Monday evening Ms Higgins courageously and publicly gave her account of her alleged sexual assault in Minister Reynolds's office in March 2019. Ms Higgins demonstrated courage that many other women have demonstrated in recent days and over many, many years in relation to this workplace and many others.

Minister Reynolds has expressed to the Senate how deeply sorry she is that, despite her genuine efforts and intentions of support, Ms Higgins felt unsupported at the time of her alleged sexual assault and in the time following. In telling her story, Ms Higgins has prompted a national conversation about how we ensure women are safe in this workplace that we are all part of here at Parliament House. It needs to be more than a conversation; it needs to ensure action such that all of us know how to do better in relation to how we prevent such incidents in the future, to do better in relation to how we handle them and support those affected by them in the future. I am confident every single one of us has something to learn through improved practices and processes that can make this workplace a safer one and a better example for all.

The Prime Minister has initiated a number of processes in response to Ms Higgins's allegations. These seek to deal with the specifics of the incident that was raised. We acknowledge and welcome the fact that Ms Higgins has indicated her intention to pursue these matters with the Australian Federal Police. The government will provide absolute cooperation with those processes. The Prime Minister has equally initiated other processes, which relate to party operations and to culture, and he has asked me, as the minister responsible for the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, to work across the parliament to initiate a review of a wider range of issues that shape our working environment. I give confirmation that this review will be at arm's length from government. It will consult widely and will provide constructive feedback on measures that can be implemented. Every step should be taken to prevent any instance of assault or workplace harassment or bullying. We should all be working in an environment of respect. This place is robust, but I respect my political opponents—each and every one of them, despite our differences. I respect those who work alongside us. We ought all make efforts to make sure that respect carries through the culture of every aspect of our operations.

In seeking to prevent, we must acknowledge that incidents may still occur and that any individual should feel supported and empowered in their decision-making when such matters arise. It is of enormous regret that Ms Higgins, or others, have felt that they could not make such decisions. We must make sure in future the systems support them and that they feel that respect to make those decisions. Indeed, those they work alongside of in this workplace, including members and senators, need proper training, processes and practices to support them when matters are raised to understand how best to handle them, how best to support those individuals and what responsibilities lie upon them if individuals do not wish to proceed with other actions.

I have scheduled meetings throughout this week with colleagues across all political parties in this place to make sure that we consult on both the terms and the processes around this multiparty independent review. I have initiated processes to do so with staff as well, and I will welcome the input of Ms Higgins and any former staff who wish to help to shape that review process and to participate in it. Over the weekend I also reached out to and had discussions with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins to ensure I have her advice as I work alongside parliamentary counterparts to do this.

It is a privilege to work in this place. That is a statement often said of those of us who stand up in the parliament, but it should be a privilege for all of those who work here too. We must all live up to the high standard that people should expect of this workplace which, of all workplaces, ought to be an exemplar. My commitment, and the government's commitment, is to work with all of us to make sure that we all do better in future.


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