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?

3:07 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The matters raised here today are, of course, very, very concerning. I can't imagine what Ms Higgins must be going through, particularly considering the fact that these issues are being discussed by us all and they're obviously very private issues for her. But it is very important that things do change; there is no doubt about that. There is a sensitivity, though, that must be observed when we're talking about such issues. The Prime Minister has said that the government takes these matters very seriously, that all matters of workplace safety must be taken seriously and that anyone who works in this place, whether they're working for a member of government or as part of the staff that help run this magnificent facility and institution here or in electorate offices around the country, must feel that they are working in a safe workplace.

The reports of the alleged sexual assault in 2019 in the minister's office are deeply distressing. Throughout the process the overriding concern of the government has always been to support Ms Higgins's welfare in whatever way possible. However, it's clear that more needs to be done, and the Prime Minister has announced, both yesterday in answers to questions at a press conference and in the other place today in answering questions, that the process that he has put in place will ensure that a thorough process is gone through to establish whatever changes are necessary within practices and within procedures. The Prime Minister has approached my good friend and colleague from Western Australia Celia Hammond, the member for Curtin. Celia was previously a vice-chancellor of Notre Dame and had to deal with situations in that institution when she was vice-chancellor. She's very well established and highly respected. She will be working with MPs in the government on a process to identify ways that standards, expectations and practices can be further improved.

Further to that, there is Stephanie Foster, the deputy secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. I sit on committees and in estimates when Ms Foster presents. While I don't know her personally, I see the way that she conducts herself through estimates and through committees. She is certainly an outstanding official and is thoroughly independent in the way that she works. In the role that she will play in undertaking a review and advising the Prime Minister on how processes can be improved, I have no doubt that she will do an outstanding job and will ensure that every avenue that needs to be explored will be explored. I think the parliament can be confident of that when she undertakes this role because I know that she is someone who is respected on all sides.

We understand that this is a matter that is under police investigation. Of course, we must respect that and follow the necessary processes to ensure that that remains consistent and that there is no prejudice of that procedure, that undertaking, at all. This is an important step that the government has consistently supported from the outset, and we will of course await the outcome of that process.

As a country, we are dealing with many things. We have a nation dealing with the COVID pandemic and the ramifications of that. Senator Green asked a question about the impact of JobKeeper. I'd actually rather be taking my time here now to talk about the impact that JobKeeper has had and the impact that it has on protecting jobs. In my home state of Western Australia, some 350,000-odd jobs were saved and protected as a result of that program. I wish I could have spent my time today talking about the impact of that because that is what we know has had a big impact in Western Australia. (Time expired)

3:12 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Like so many Australians, I was shocked and appalled by the revelations of the past few days that a young woman, a ministerial staffer, had suffered and was traumatised by an alleged rape in the minister's office on the minister's couch. It is shocking to even utter those words in the Australian parliament in 2021. I am feeling sick to my stomach, as I know so many Australians will be, at this news of a woman who, so excited, so full of idealism to come and work in the nation's parliament, was, after this alleged rape, so discarded, so diminished, so ignored and left so alone by the very people she came here to support and promote.

There is still this culture in this country and, most disturbingly, in this parliament. It pains me to say it but, after story upon story of allegations of bullying and sexual assault in the Liberal Party, there's a culture, clearly, that does not respect women, does not support them and does not believe them. This is completely unacceptable. I think we need to examine the fact that, when the Prime Minister took over from Malcolm Turnbull, he, in response to those allegations of bullying, promised and announced a robust process to ensure that these allegations would be taken seriously. It was another announcement with no delivery. That robust process has not been delivered.

The Prime Minister would also have us believe that his office apparently found out about this alleged horrific crime—a sexual assault, the rape of a staffer in his government—only last week. This claim of the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, strains credulity, as Malcolm Turnbull said. We know that the then chief of staff to Linda Reynolds previously worked for Scott Morrison and is now back working for Scott Morrison. We know from Ms Higgins's own evidence, her own testimony on national television, that the Prime Minister's principal private secretary was around the office, involved in the conversation, helping to fix and manage the problem. And that's how Ms Higgins described it: she felt like she was a problem to be managed; she felt like she was a political problem to be sent away. She absolutely felt pressure to choose between her job in the Morrison government and seeking justice for her alleged rape.

The Prime Minister would have us believe that no-one in his office knew about this alleged rape until last week. The government's own statement this week, after Ms Higgins's interview, says that the Prime Minister's office was involved back in March 2019 in assisting Minister Reynolds's office with this particular incident. So which is right: the government's statement or the Prime Minister's statement in the parliament? They can't both be right.

This is a Prime Minister who does not like accountability, does not like transparency and does not deliver. But here he has failed to deliver in the most extraordinary way, letting down every woman, every person, who works in this building and letting down women right across Australia. This Prime Minister stood up and said the gravity of the situation only became clear to him when his wife reminded him that he had daughters. You don't have to be a man with daughters to understand that rape is a violent crime, an assault on a woman; that it should be taken seriously; that she should be supported; and that it should be thoroughly investigated. All across Australia people shook their heads in confusion as to how the Prime Minister of this country could not just respond as a human being. The Prime Minister, the Minister for Defence and the Morrison government continue to compound Brittany's trauma by not getting their stories straight. (Time expired)

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.

3:22 pm

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to focus my comments today on answers given by Senator Reynolds to questions asked of her by the opposition. Those questions go directly to the conduct of this minister, and the conduct of this minister is something that she has to be accountable for in this chamber. What we've seen over the last three question times is the minister, after being a bit shaky on her feet with the details and not really knowing how to answer on Monday, take the decision, probably under advice by others, to not answer any questions at all and hide behind two defences—the first one is using Ms Higgins as a defence, that Ms Higgins's privacy needs to be respected now that it's inconvenient for the Minister for Defence, and the second one is this notion that there's an ongoing police investigation, which, to my understanding, hasn't been confirmed. I understand there's an open investigation. But the conduct of this minister is a legitimate avenue of questions by members of this place and deserves serious answers by the Minister for Defence.

As Senator Wong and Senator Keneally have said, this goes to one of the most senior offices in this place about allegations of a most serious crime occurring in this building to someone who came to work here. And, whilst we accept that there are matters that may be subject to police investigation in the future, there are matters which aren't. And those matters go to the conduct of this minister: When did she know? What did she do? How did she respond? And that is what she's avoiding in this place. That can only leave us with two explanations: (1) that she's not being accurate in her comments to this chamber, or deliberately not providing information, or (2) that she was wilfully negligent in her role as an employer and as a minister. That is the only explanation we can be left with, because we saw Minister Cash provide more information frankly in one question than we've had from Senator Reynolds in many questions.

There is absolutely no legal constraint on Senator Reynolds telling this chamber when she became aware, what she did when she became aware and what steps she took to support Ms Higgins. She tells us she did but she does not explain what she did. It is not unreasonable to put those questions to the Minister for Defence. She's a senior minister in this place and there are very public allegations about a serious crime occurring not only in her suite but in her office, on her couch. She cannot any longer hide behind Ms Higgins, who deserves better. The language she uses about wanting to support Ms Higgins—she can support her by being truthful about what happened. By withholding information, what she is continuing is the cover-up that has been underway for two years, which has been the cause of much trauma to Ms Higgins. It's the cover-up, often, that is as traumatic as other elements of a serious crime like this because it compounds the trauma. It means that people she worked for, people she looked up to, who she expected to treat her properly haven't. And Senator Reynolds does nothing—nothing—to dissuade us from that view by not answering.

We know, and it's on the public record, that Senator Reynolds's chief of staff knew after Ms Higgins disclosed on the Tuesday—I think—25 March 2019 what happened to her. On 1 April, Senator Reynolds was in a meeting with Ms Higgins. What happened in the six days? What happened, and why can't Senator Reynolds tell us? That is the missing link of some of what we have asked, and she is wilfully withholding that information from the Senate. She's hiding behind a police investigation and she is hiding behind Ms Higgins. The Senate deserves better, Ms Higgins deserves better and, frankly, I think the rest of Australia believes the defence minister of this country should provide that information. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.