Senate debates

Monday, 22 February 2021


Members of Parliament: Staff

10:01 am

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 statement made by the Minister for Defence, Senator Reynolds, on 18 February 2021.

This has been a distressing time for Ms Higgins, for many staff in this place, for survivors of sexual violence and for those who have supported them. I start by honouring the courage of Ms Brittany Higgins, whose resolve to tell the truth, no matter how risky for her or how confronting, is an example to those in power. I also acknowledge other women who have come forward to tell their story—three women who have told their story of being violated by a man and failed by a hierarchy.

Much has been written, reported and said since Ms Higgins's account was made public, but we should be clear about the key questions which must be answered. The first is why Ms Higgins was failed by those within power and those with power. Those who failed her must be held accountable. The second is how we change the culture of politics in this place and beyond to ensure not only the safety of women but our full participation in political life. Both of these questions must be answered.

Since these distressing allegations have been made public, the Prime Minister and others in his government have sought to focus on questions of culture, and there is no question that there is a problem with the treatment of women in Parliament House and in politics. We saw that when concerns were publicly raised by Liberal women about bullying and intimidation following the leadership spill which saw Mr Morrison depose Mr Turnbull. We saw that in the revelations made by two former Liberal staffers in 2019. And then there was Four Corners last year, where the response from the Morrison government was to launch a full-throttle attack on the ABC.

When the culture of the bullying of Liberal women was raised, Mr Morrison said, 'I'm not going to be distracted by it. I'm not going to get distracted by it'—not going to get distracted by concerns that women were being bullied in his own government. Ultimately, where did his process end up—that process he described as rigorous and confidential? Well, Ms Chelsey Potter, one of the women who raised concerns about bullying, described aspects of the resultant policy as 'protecting alleged perpetrators rather than empowering women in the party to speak up'.

Mr Morrison has talked a lot lately about processes, reviews and changing culture, but he's spoken very little about the accountability of those who put Ms Higgins in a position where she felt her career with the Liberal Party would be compromised if she went to the police. And he avoids this central truth: the first thing you can do to change culture is to act appropriately when serious allegations are made. As part of his political response, Mr Morrison has threatened those seeking to hold his government to account that no party is immune from these issues. Of course, no party, no organisation, is immune from these horrific acts. What matters is how we respond to complaints when they arise, and what matters is how we seek to change the culture by implementing systemic change that supports complainants and seeks to break down power imbalances.

You see, Mr Morrison's sympathetic words ring hollow whilst there is no culture of accountability. We know from Ms Brittany Higgins that this is how it was handled. She said this and we believe her. Ms Higgins said she was given a choice between justice or her job. 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.' Ms Higgins was told she could take time away at home on the Gold Coast, but there would be no way back. She said she realised her job was on the line. She said she realised the rape she reported in the minister's office was being seen as 'a political issue'. She wasn't being treated as a human being; she wasn't being treated as a rape survivor or as a victim of a grave crime. She was being treated as a political problem.

And there remain big questions over what was spoken about inside the Morrison government and, indeed, inside Mr Morrison's office—questions about who knew what and when, and whether their response was appropriate. We've been told the alleged rapist was terminated over a security breach. We are told the two most senior staff in the Prime Minister's office—the chief of staff and the principal private secretary—were notified of that termination. The alleged perpetrator was terminated for a security breach—Ms Higgins was not—and the obvious inference is that the sexual assault was known at the time these decisions were made.

The difference in handling by the minister's office and the Prime Minister's office can only be explained by knowledge of the alleged sexual assault. Is this the reason a senior representative of the Australian Federal Police met with Senator Reynolds on 5 April, or was there another reason? The minister has claimed repeatedly she was not made aware of the details of the alleged rape until Monday 1 April 2019. But her office received written advice from the Department of Finance days earlier, on Friday 29 March. Senator Reynolds is expecting people to believe she was unaware, despite this written advice to her office.

And it isn't just Minister Reynolds's account that doesn't add up. The Prime Minister claims he first heard on Monday 15 February 2021, and he's asking Australians to believe his press office didn't tell him for three whole days after questions were put to them on Friday 12 February. We now know from a message sent to Ms Higgins that one of the Prime Minister's staff was 'mortified' when they were told two years earlier and had resolved to tell the Prime Minister's chief of staff. We know that his principal private secretary, the man described as Mr Morrison's fixer, was broadly in the vicinity and checking up on Ms Higgins; and we know that Minister Reynolds's then chief of staff, to whom Ms Higgins then disclosed the allegations of rape, had previously worked for Mr Morrison and has since returned to the Prime Minister's office.

What this comes down to is who knew and whether they handled that appropriately—whether they handled what they knew about the alleged assault appropriately. The Prime Minister's insistence that neither he nor his office knew, despite all the evidence to the contrary, demonstrates he knows this is the test—and he knows he's failed. That is why he has put Mr Gaetjens in charge—Mr Gaetjens, who has a proven record of whitewashing the wrongdoings of the Morrison government. We know Minister Reynolds was aware and made it feel like a political problem to fix, made Ms Higgins feel like she had to choose between justice or her job. We know that, at best, Mr Morrison runs a government where the culture is 'don't ask, don't tell' when it comes to serious criminal allegations. At worst, Mr Morrison himself is part of the cover-up. Of course, there are human consequences to all of this: for Ms Higgins, two years of compounded trauma and denied justice; for all women in this building and beyond, two more years of ignoring concerns about culture; and for the woman who spoke of her trauma in The Weekend Australian on Saturday.

Mr Morrison is arguably the most powerful person in the land. He sets standards that form cultural expectations. His actions, and inactions, shape the culture. But, when Four Corners raised serious concerns about the culture of mistreatment of women in his government, he tried to silence the ABC. When women complained of bullying in his government, he said, 'I'm not going to be distracted by that.' When rape was alleged in an office of one of his own ministers, he set up whitewash investigations that can be controlled. Mr Morrison's media advisers started rumours about Ms Higgins and her partner, and Mr Morrison blamed the victim. He said he was angry about being left in the dark, but there have been no consequences for those he claims left him in the dark. Mr Morrison talks about culture, but what he is not talking about is the culture he leads in his own government, where, no matter what happens, he is never responsible, where nobody is accountable for anything and where a serious crime was covered up.

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.

10:15 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of Minister Reynolds's statement last week on these matters. Minister Reynolds maintained that when she met with Brittany Higgins, just metres from the couch on which Ms Higgins was allegedly raped, she didn't know about the allegations, yet several days earlier her chief of staff had received advice from the department about what to do when staff make a complaint of sexual assault. The Prime Minister has maintained that, despite countless people, many of whom work in his office, being aware of the rape allegations, as we now know, his office didn't know until 12 February. He says he personally didn't know until the story broke last Monday. Many questions remain, yet three of the four reviews that have been announced, in a flurry of response, are internal reviews. That is not good enough when the culture of keeping things in-house is what has led to this culture of silencing.

It's taken very brave women, so wronged by the system, to speak out. Over the weekend two more women came forward alleging they had been raped by the same perpetrator. This should weigh heavily on those who failed to act decisively in response to Brittany Higgins's allegations. That's why the particular details of how this place, this government, failed Brittany Higgins are important. It's essential to identify who knew what when and what has been done to ensure that no-one else goes through what Brittany Higgins went through. An internal investigation into how Brittany Higgins's case went so wrong is not enough, and I will be moving a motion later today calling for an independent inquiry. I hope that that motion gets the support of all people in this chamber.

This place, this government, this parliament and those that have preceded them have failed many others who have worked here. We know the names of Brittany Higgins, Rachelle Miller and Chelsey Potter, but they're not alone. Countless staff members, predominantly young women, have felt forced from this place by harassment, predatory behaviour, bullying and assault. We need to dismantle the culture that has allowed so many to get away with so much for so long. This is a culture that blames victims, as the Prime Minister did last week, for getting themselves into vulnerable situations. This is a culture that sees women's worth only in relation to men: as daughters or as wives, not as individuals worthy of value irrespective of their relationship with a man. This is a culture that closes its eyes when powerful men use, abuse and discard women and rarely suffer consequences—they even retain their ministries. This is a culture that adds a bonk ban to the ministerial standards yet washes its hands of further responsibility. This is a culture that allows Mr Craig Kelly's adviser to remain on staff despite multiple allegations of highly inappropriate conduct.

Yes, we need a comprehensive review of the complaints process and an independent body so that no-one feels, as Brittany Higgins did, that making a complaint will end their career. We also need an enforceable code of conduct binding senators, members and senior staff to the highest standards of behaviour, and for there to be genuine consequences when we fail to meet those standards. More than that, we need to systematically unpick the misogyny, the inequality and the privilege that create a culture in which what happened to Brittany Higgins, Rachelle Miller, Chelsey Potter, Dhanya Mani and so many others is downplayed as just what happens in parliament.

This is not a problem unique to any particular party, to this parliament or to politics. Nearly 12 months ago the Sex Discrimination Commissioner released the damming report Respect@Work: national inquiryinto sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, which found that workplace sexual harassment is prevalent and pervasive and that most people who experience sexual harassment never report it. Overwhelmingly, the commission heard that gender inequality was a key driver of harassment.

In her powerful piece in The Saturday Paper, Dhanya Mani, who went public in 2017 about her assault by a fellow staffer, said:

The reason for Brittany's assault, and mine—and the ongoing disclosures I receive from other women—is the same reason there have been sexual abuse scandals in every self-regulating, autonomous or unpoliced fiefdom of power and privilege. What Australia seems wilfully blind to is that each of its enclaves of power—from religious institutions such as the Catholic Church, to the judiciary, corporations and financial institutions, to our parliaments—has a misogynistic, patriarchal power structure that enables the oppression, vilification and sexual abuse of women.

She goes on:

Our parliaments house the most powerful people in the country, many of them white men. They have used their power to create one of the most exploitative and damaging workplaces imaginable.

I note that over the weekend a petition was signed by more than 2,000 Sydney private school students calling for more to be done to teach respectful relationships and what consent means. The petition calls out rape culture and outlines over 500 experiences of assault. We shouldn't be surprised that this culture persists in politics, but this is not a problem that's unique to politics; this is a problem, however, that we have an obligation to fix.

The Respect@Work report sets out a comprehensive reform framework, including positive duties of care and primary prevention. The government needs to urgently act on these recommendations. A comprehensive, transparent, independent review of the parliamentary culture is long overdue, and I look forward to working across the chamber to make it happen. Current and former staff must be involved in setting the scope of any independent review. The experiences of those most vulnerable to the power imbalance in this place must inform how we move forward.

When asked whether she has hope that the discussions over the past week signal a change, Dhanya Mani said absolutely not. It's devastating to hear that someone who is working tirelessly to turn her trauma into advocacy has no faith in us to fix it. But we owe it to Dhanya Mani to prove her wrong. We owe it to Brittany Higgins, to the countless young women that the current system has failed, to Australians who despair at the example set by this place and to the young women to whom we want to show that politics is a safe place for them to be. We owe it to all women to provide safe workplaces everywhere. The Prime Minister leads this culture, and he needs to finally show some leadership.

10:22 am

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

The opposition has repeatedly asked over the past week: when and what did the minister know about the alleged rape, and what did she do? The minister clearly knew by 27 March that something serious had occurred in her office between her staff, but then waited until Monday 1 April, some six days after the first disclosure by Ms Higgins, to speak directly to the young woman involved. The minister says she didn't know the full details of what was alleged to have happened, but she doesn't explain why that was the case. The statement says:

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.

What did the minister do? Did the minister arrange for counselling and support? Did she check in with Ms Higgins to see if she needed any help to access services? The statement goes on to say:

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.

Ms Higgins had already independently spoken with police days before this, and, according to Ms Higgins, the access to police in the 1 April meeting was couched in terms of: 'If you go to the police, you must let us know when you do.' There was no offer of going with her, of supporting her, of sitting with her. Why is it, throughout this traumatic time for Ms Higgins, the minister only ever spoke to Ms Higgins about it once, on 1 April, and then never again? The minister tells this place that she has:

… full confidence that my then chief of staff and I at all times acted in what we believed were in the best interests of Brittany.

If this were true, why didn't the minister ever check in to see if Ms Higgins was okay? Why didn't the minister ever check to see if she had accessed counselling support? Why, after saying she'd prefer to be near her family for the election campaign, was Ms Higgins dispatched across the country to Western Australia for the entire duration of the campaign, isolated and alone, with nobody to talk to? How was any of this in Ms Higgins's best interest? It might've been in the Liberal Party's interest, but you can't argue it was in Ms Higgin's interest.

Ms Higgins was the minister's employee. There was a duty of care. How did the minister act in her best interests if the alleged rape was never discussed again after the 1 April meeting? A dedicated employee of this government is allegedly raped in the minister's office, and the minister never follows up. This terrible incident happened in Senator Reynolds's office. She could have done more, she should have done more, and I think she actually knows that. In her statement, the minister said:

Throughout this entire time my sole desire has been to let Brittany herself determine how this matter would be dealt with.

But, minister, you were the boss. It happened in your office. Why should it have been left to a young, traumatised and stricken woman to navigate her way through this? Why is everything her responsibility? The minister's statement says:

At all times Brittany's welfare and her right to privacy were paramount to me.

Why, then, if her privacy was so important, did you speak with Minister Cash's chief of staff in October 2019 and tell them everything about what you knew? Was that protecting Ms Higgins's privacy? She didn't know it was being done. Was that in her best interests then?

The minister says that she understands it's the duty of the Senate to ask hard questions about how this incident was dealt with. Yes, we will ask those questions, because it goes right to the heart of the minister's capability, suitability and conduct. The minister is a senior member of this government, and, in the treatment of Ms Higgins, the minister has been found seriously wanting. The minister says she is sorry Ms Higgins felt unsupported and that some of the minister's actions added to Ms Higgins's distress. This statement alone is some acknowledgement that, as an employer, the minister and the Liberal Party failed this young woman. The minister failed to take appropriate action. The minister placed her back at the scene of the alleged crime. The minister failed to stand up and support this young woman. The minister failed to offer or arrange the help that she clearly needed after allegations of sexual assault were raised. The minister sent her across the country, where she was isolated. The minister failed to check in with her. And, after the election was over, the minister washed her hands of all of it.

This is an egregious failure by Senator Reynolds as an employer and as a minister. The minister's statement has left many questions about her conduct unanswered. But then she lectures us that, due to the various inquiries underway:

It is now incumbent on all of us in this place to let the independent processes now in train consider these matters.

The independent process has nothing to do with what Senator Reynolds did or didn't do during her conduct as a minister, nor does the police investigation have anything to do with the minister's conduct following the alleged rape, and the minister should stop trying to hide behind it. The minister has failed to answer the questions asked of her. But we will not stop asking them. The minister has failed to take responsibility for what happened in the aftermath of an awful, traumatising event. The minister's statement finishes with:

My hope now is that we can address this very serious issue as a parliament, away from the politics.

All I can say to that is: I bet you do.

I note the government is trying to broaden and spread the blame and make it about everyone's office and every person in this building. But there are two separate issues here. What happened to this young woman in a senior minister's office two years ago—and what happened after that event? And then there's the broader issue of the cultural change that is required in this building. We cannot allow this government to conflate the two. That's what they're trying to do. The PM and his marketing team are trying to make what happened to this young woman everybody's responsibility—and it's not. If I had known about what happened to this young woman, if many people in this place had known about what happened to this young woman two years ago, there would have been a very different response than the one she got from this government. Ms Higgins should have been treated very differently two years ago when she came to the minister, a young woman clearly in need of help and support, and she deserves better from this minister now.

10:29 am

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of Minister Reynolds's statement. We have already said that this needs to be investigated by the police. I would have expected someone in the Prime Minister's position, both within his party and within the parliament, to have acted swiftly, immediately, unequivocally and clearly. We have not seen that.

I go back to August 2019, when I was on the inquiry into the appointments of former Minister Bishop and former minister Christopher Pyne immediately after they retired from parliament. I can remember that Senator McAllister and I, and others, were in the inquiry asking questions, and I persisted and persisted with Mr Parkinson about the investigation he'd been given responsibility to lead. Eventually, Mr Parkinson started getting nervous and unsteady, and he admitted that he had no power to investigate the issue. I'm only a junior senator—I've only been here five minutes—but he was the Prime Minister's chief man. The Prime Minister knows that Mr Gaetjens does not have the power to investigate this issue.

So, while we are in favour of a police investigation, we also are not pleased that the Prime Minister has been sloppy and slow and seems to be avoiding the issue. What we want is a proper investigation as to what happens in this building and in the corridors of power, because we just cannot accept what happened to Ms Higgins and, as we found out over the weekend, two other people. This building is becoming a blight on the country. We need to have a Prime Minister who is honest, objective, clear, quick and unequivocal in his response to this.

Question agreed to.