Tuesday, 16 February 2021
Questions without Notice
Members of Parliament: Staff
My question is to the Minister for Defence, Senator Reynolds. Reports indicate the alleged rapist's employment with the minister's office ended on Tuesday 26 March 2019. What was the reason for his employment ending, and did he resign or was he sacked?
I thank the senator for her question. I will answer the question, but if you would allow me just to address some of the matters that have been the subject of a lot of media in the last 24 hours. Reflecting on the circumstances and reflecting on what I would say here in the chamber today, saying 'sorry' is often the hardest thing for those of us who work in this place to say. But can I say today 'sorry' is the easiest word for me to say. I unreservedly apologise to Brittany Higgins. Last night we all heard from Brittany herself in her on words. Her trauma, her distress, was very, very clear to all to see. The fact that she felt unsupported in her time working here was also very, very clear for us all to see and, for that, I apologise.
At the time, I truly believed that I and my chief of staff were doing everything we could to support that young woman who I had responsibility for. At all times, my intent and my aim were to empower Brittany and let her determine the course of her own situation, not by me, not by my staff, not by the government as a whole, but by Brittany. When I first met with her in my office about the matter, I was not aware of the details and circumstances of what occurred. However, I deeply, deeply regret conducting the meeting in my office where the alleged incident had occurred. It is now clear that this also has caused ongoing distress to Brittany herself and compounded the trauma she continues to experience and, for that—
Mr President, I would move that the minister be given an extension of time because obviously she wishes to make this statement. We also would have given her leave to make this statement at any time. As she has said she will come to the question, I would propose—by leave—that she be given a further two minutes to come to the question when she's concluded this statement.
Thank you very much, Mr President. Thank you very much to Senate Wong for that. As I said, it was very clear to me from seeing and hearing from Brittany on the TV last night that there was a range of circumstances which compounded her trauma and her grief. No woman should ever have to go through what she has clearly been through. That trauma that comes not just in the immediate aftermath of an assault but in the many months and the many long years that follow it is what those of us in this building failed to acknowledge. However, listening to Brittany describe the depression and the trauma she experienced in that subsequent time, it is very, very clear to me that more could and should have been done to support her.
The kind of support Brittany needs has to start in a political office. It starts with her boss—in this case, with me—with her colleagues, with her friends. But it cannot end there. That is why I welcome the Prime Minister's announcement this morning that he intends to look at how we can improve the support mechanisms offered to staff and the processes around the handling of these most serious of workplace complaints. As the inquiries that the Prime Minister has announced and the AFP investigation that was opened two years ago continue, I will work with them in every way that I possibly can. We have to do better, and I'm sure we all want to do better.
In relation to the question of my second staff member: he left my office shortly after that. I sought advice from Ministerial and Parliamentary Services, who assisted me through that process, and he was terminated from my office. (Time expired)
So I think the answer is that he was sacked. Is that correct? The alleged rapist has been described as the minister's favourite, a go-to person who had a special bond with the minister. Did the minister consider it odd that her favourite go-to person would resign on the spot for a security breach, without a conversation with her? Has the minister had any contact with the alleged offender since his termination? If so, when?
The circumstances for both of my staff will be the subject of all of the ongoing investigations, because they all relate to the same matter. What I can say is, of course: I am responsible for my own conduct, as every single person in this place is. In relation to how I dealt with both of my staff: at all times I sought advice from Ministerial and Parliamentary Services, who worked and assisted me right through this process in how to deal with both of my staff members. I don't think it is fair for either party to air in this place today the details and the circumstances of that. However, there will be, I understand, the ongoing AFP investigation and the internal investigations, which is where I believe is the right place to air those—
On direct relevance: the question was asked whether or not the minister has had any contact with the alleged offender since his termination. I ask the minister to return to the question.
I've allowed you to restate the last part of the question, Senator Wong. I do believe that the minister is being directly relevant to an earlier part of the question. There's an opportunity to debate these matters at an appropriate time.
Can the minister inform the Senate why the alleged offender was terminated? Can she also inform the Senate whether the alleged rapist was assisted by herself or any other member of the government or her staff in finding employment following the alleged rape and whether she provided a reference for that person?
I'm somewhat bemused by the question. The person was terminated by me with the assistance of Ministerial and Parliamentary Services. I will take advice on how much I can say about that person's termination, but he was terminated very shortly after this incident. I'll take it on notice and seek some further advice about how much I can actually say in relation to the circumstances surrounding this, and I will come back to the chamber when I've received that advice.