Senate debates

Thursday, 18 February 2021


Members of Parliament: Staff

2:00 pm

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to make a statement.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Is leave granted?

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

We will give leave. I would like to seek some clarity, and we can have some discussion across the table, about the capacity of the Senate to take note of it and, therefore, the consequences for question time. But on the basis that those discussions will be had, the Labor Party will give leave, as the minister's requested.

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, I refer to the serious matters relating to my former staff member, Ms Brittany Higgins, who was employed in my ministerial office when I was the Minister for Defence Industry. I take this opportunity to provide the Senate with a further statement. On Monday evening, we heard in Brittany's own words the harrowing account of her alleged sexual assault in my ministerial office in 2019. Brittany's story has occasioned a wider reckoning of how women are treated in this building. It has prompted a national conversation about how we ensure women are safe in their workplace, wherever that is, and how we support them when they need our care. As a woman who has spent much of her working life in politics, much of it in this very building, I welcome that conversation and I welcome the reviews announced by the Prime Minister. My hope now is that we can address this very serious issue as a parliament, away from the politics.

I've been asked a series of questions surrounding the circumstances of Ms Higgins's alleged sexual assault and the actions that were taken by myself and my then chief of staff as a consequence. I will do my best to answer them. I became aware incrementally, over a period of days, of Brittany's story during private conversations with her and my then chief of staff, and via reports from parliamentary authorities. On Tuesday 26 March my then chief of staff called Brittany and a male co-worker into separate meetings concerning what at that point appeared to be a security breach involving unauthorised access to my office. The following day, the Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services provided a report concerning the security breach. On Monday 1 April I met with Brittany and my then former chief of staff. During this meeting I made it clear to Brittany that she would have my full support in whatever course of action she decided to take and that she would have full access to counselling services. My chief of staff and I moved quickly to ensure that Brittany was given access to the police, should she wish to make a complaint.

In terms of the actions taken by my then chief of staff and by me in the days and weeks that followed Brittany's alleged assault, we at all times followed the advice of Ministerial and Parliamentary Services and the Department of Finance, as was appropriate. I have full confidence that my then chief of staff and I at all times acted in what we believed were the best interests of the Brittany.

Throughout this entire time my sole desire has been to let Brittany herself determine how this matter would be dealt with. I fully appreciate—I fully appreciate—that it is the proper duty of the Senate, of all us in this chamber, to ask hard questions about how this incident was dealt with. But, at the time, this was a difficult, it was a complex, and it was a highly sensitive matter. At all times Brittany's welfare and her right to privacy were paramount to me. For my part, I am deeply sorry that Brittany felt unsupported at the time of the incident and in the months that followed and, in fact, the years that followed. I'm also deeply sorry that some of my actions and my handling of this matter added to Brittany's distress.

The Prime Minister has announced an independent review into the culture of Parliament House and the processes in place to deal with serious incidents such as these. It is a move I welcome. It is a move that I think we can all agree is long overdue. It is now incumbent on all of us in this place to let the independent processes now in train consider these matters.

2:05 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the minister has given that statement. I think that is important. I would ask that we allocate a finite period of time on Monday for the Senate to take note of the statement. I think there would be a few things in that which would be useful for us to reflect on and consider, so I would invite the government to indicate so.

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

I thank Senator Wong. The government will facilitate a time-limited discussion in relation to the statement at an appropriate time on Monday.