Wednesday, 17 February 2021
Questions without Notice
Members of Parliament: Staff
My question is to the Minister for Defence, Senator Reynolds. On Monday, the minister said that, in her meeting with Ms Higgins on 1 April 2019, she was 'not aware of the details or the circumstances of the alleged incident in my office'. When did the minister become aware, and who told her?
I thank the senator for the question. As I indicated in my previous response, it's my understanding that Brittany has indicated she intends to pursue her complaint with the Australian Federal Police and that she has asked for her privacy to be respected, and I will do so.
Just for the information of the chamber, Ms Higgins has given permission for us to ask questions about this incident. Just for your information—I don't think you should hide behind Ms Higgins by refusing to answer these questions.
In terms of the Prime Minister's office and their awareness, the government's own statement says:
As part of this process, the Prime Minister’s office provided support to Minister Reynolds and her office in assessing a breach of the Statement of Standards for Ministerial Staff by the other staff member involved in the incident.
Can the minister explain, in her own words, what the nature of this support was?
The Prime Minister announced yesterday that these matters, the one that Senator Gallagher has referred to, would be examined thoroughly, and I welcome and I support that process. What I will say, again, is that at all times my staff and I tried to support Brittany—
Honourable senators interjecting—
My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Birmingham. The Prime Minister has said that he was not aware of the allegations made by Brittany Higgins until Monday and that his office didn't know until Friday last week, despite the involvement of two ministers and current senior staff in his office. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says he finds it very, very, very hard to believe that the PM's office was not aware. Yesterday, the Prime Minister also said that he wanted to listen to Brittany, but then he questioned her report that she'd been contacted by his 'fixer', Yaron Finkelstein. Do you agree with the former Prime Minister that it strains credulity that Mr Morrison's office did not know about the alleged rape? And do you support the Prime Minister's suggestion that Brittany was confused and wrong about contacts from Mr Finkelstein?
In relation to advice provided to the Prime Minister's office, it's important to appreciate what Senator Reynolds has indicated previously—the respect for Brittany's choices and confidentiality. The primary concern is for Brittany and her welfare. It's out of concern for Brittany and to empower her decision-making that Minister Reynolds facilitated discussions between Brittany and police in early 2019. I note that the parliamentary department provided access to police with CCTV footage at that time and have preserved such footage to facilitate any future access. It's clear, obviously from what has been said publicly, that Brittany believes the support ultimately was inadequate, for which Minister Reynolds has unreservedly apologised. Concern for Brittany's wellbeing remains paramount, including her right to preserve her choices around whatever actions or steps that she takes. But the government will certainly continue to cooperate with any investigations undertaken.
Yes, a point of order on relevance, Mr President. My question clearly went to whether the minister agrees with former Prime Minister Turnbull's views, and it pertains to whether or not he agrees that Brittany was lying.
The Prime Minister's made clear his view that he believes he ought to have been notified earlier. But, of course, as always, how such notifications are handled in the future will be a factor of consideration of the reviews that are underway, noting the fact that the privacy and confidentiality wishes of individuals also need to be respected when such issues arise.
The bungled response to incidents around Brittany Higgins's assault has involved senior staff in the Prime Minister's office, two ministers, security guards, the presiding officers and the Department of Parliamentary Services. The government's fingerprints are all over this, and it's simply impossible to imagine that an in-house investigation will be adequate to get to the bottom of this. When will the government commit to an independent investigation into the response to Brittany Higgins's rape allegations?
Yesterday, the government and the Prime Minister committed to a non-partisan cross-party review around workplace matters. Senator, I will be reaching out to you, as I will to others, to ascertain the next steps in relation to how that review is undertaken.
Following allegations aired on Four Corners last year, I wrote to both you and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate requesting a cross-party meeting to discuss options to establish a robust, independent complaints procedure and to give staff confidence that allegations would be treated seriously and that there could be consequences for perpetrators. While I welcome the calls that are gaining some traction this week, why has it taken nearly three months and the most serious of misconducts in this building for the government to finally act, and act in a weak manner?
I don't accept the final assertion there. I've just given an undertaking that I will be engaging with Senator Waters, with Senator Farrell, or whomever the opposition nominates, and, indeed, with others who wish to participate to ensure that the type of cross-party response to create a stronger set of practices in relation to workplace relations matters in this building for the future is as comprehensive as it needs to be. I look forward to engaging with those parties to achieve that outcome.