Senate debates

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Members of Parliament: Staff

3:31 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) 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 by Senators Wong, Gallagher, Ayres and Polley today.

What we've seen in this chamber, day after day, is that the Minister for Defence is somebody who cannot remember, who doesn't understand the processes and who has done nothing to protect the privacy of Ms Higgins, yet she comes into this place and hides behind her words, saying that she wants Ms Higgins to be able to give her recollections herself and that she is trying to respect to Ms Higgins's privacy. Well, Ms Higgins's response to those statements that have been given in this place and elsewhere is: 'I don't think she has ever been concerned about my privacy. She wasn't concerned about my privacy when she met with the assistant commissioner of the Australian Federal Police behind my back.'

What has been so disappointing about this whole sordid affair involving Ms Higgins, who has made a very serious allegation of rape, in the office of the Minister for Defence, is that every time this minister comes into the chamber she refuses to give a full and frank account of what she did in terms of supporting Ms Higgins—referring the matter to the AFP, informing the Prime Minister of this country. We have seen nothing but failure on the part of this minister. In this chamber, during question time, the minister all but called Ms Higgins a liar. That's what she did. So the effect that this is having—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Polley, please resume your seat. Senator Brockman, on a point of order?

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Under 193(3), this is getting very, very close, if not over the line, to a direct imputation against a member of this place, and I would ask you to listen closely to what is being said.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I certainly will. As you pointed out, I think the senator came close but not quite all the way there, although I will be guided by the Clerk if he thinks otherwise. Yes, I think the senator has come close, Senator Brockman, and I'll continue to pay close attention. I would invite Senator Polley, if she thinks there is an imputation she wishes to withdraw, to take the opportunity to do so. But please continue.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The minister, today in this chamber, said that Ms Higgins had her recollections and she has a right to tell that story. But I believe that Ms Higgins has a right to be heard, to be listened to, to be supported and to be respected. This is a terrible message that we're sending out to young women who work in this place and young men who work in this place. They cannot be assured that they're going to have the support of their minister, their senator or their member when something happens that is unacceptable, that is contrary to Australian law. Their boss won't first have their back and won't refer the issue to the Australian Federal Police straightaway. It is just extraordinary. The minister came in here and said, 'Yes, I did have a meeting with the Assistant Commissioner of the AFP'—only after the Prime Minister had already made that public in the other place. Today she said she had that meeting. Yesterday she couldn't tell us whether anyone else attended the meeting, but today she said: 'I did have a meeting. In fact, I had two meetings. On 1 April my chief of staff came and joined me.' She came back later and, to further questioning from Senator Wong, said: 'I don't know. I will have to take that on notice.'

This is a serious issue. I have no doubt that the minister has put herself under immense pressure in this situation. But she should have been fully briefed, fully prepared and known whether she had meetings with the assistant commissioner, whether her chief of staff was there and when Ms Higgins was there. But now she's got to go and check those facts. This does nothing to assure the Australian people or anyone else that listens to parliament. I know from the number of phone calls my colleagues and I are receiving in our offices that they have little faith in this minister. They have little faith that this has not been covered up. In fact, some would assert that the cover-up goes right to the top, to the Prime Minister, who remarkably says that he only found out on Monday that there was an alleged rape in the minister's office. Anyone who's been in this place for even a short period of time would know that t nothing goes on in this place without gossip and innuendo about what's been happening. So it's an absolutely extraordinary effort by this minister to cover up a real crime. (Time expired)

3:38 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Sensitive issues like this deserve to be treated with respect. It's got to be considered that these matters are fraught with exceptional difficulty. Whilst I am sure Senator Polley has huge qualities as a senator and is multiskilled, I would suggest to her that it is highly inappropriate for her or, indeed, any other senator to come into this place and pretend to be so multiskilled that you can be the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge and the jury all in one matter, especially one as sensitive as this. In a former life, I defended people who were accused of heinous offences and I represented victims who were the subject of heinous offences. Indeed, one of the privileges I had before entering parliament was being a founding executive member and honorary legal adviser to a women's shelter, where issues of this nature often arose. You've got to be sensitive. You've got to treat people that come with their stories with respect. In Australia we also have, thankfully, the concept of innocent until proven guilty. You've got to treat these cases exceptionally carefully.

What I would invite all senators to do is to leave this matter to the independent body that has now been established, where the Minister for Finance is seeking to ensure that this matter is dealt with in a manner that takes it out of the political realm. Sure, some people think that you can get some tawdry political advantage by going on a personal demolition derby against the minister, but the minister herself has been consistent throughout this matter in her responses, seeking to protect the person making the allegations. That is an appropriate course of action, a proper course of action and an honourable course of action. Especially in circumstances when political opponents are seeking to apply a blowtorch to her, it might be very easy for her to say, 'Well, here it all is.' Instead, she has retained her dignity. She has retained the exact same approach that she has from day one. I think that is indicative of character, discernment and judgement. For the Labor Party to try to run this tawdry exercise against the minister on a personal basis really does, I think, the Labor Party a great disservice, and, one assumes, also the lady making the complaint a great disservice.

We are not here to determine what the facts of the circumstances of the case may be. On the face of it, I've got to say it looks pretty ugly, pretty horrific and clearly it is an exceptionally serious matter. So, should it be bounced around this chamber and in the other place, with people trying to make some political point-scoring exercise out of it? I think not. What we need is genuine sincerity, a careful treatment of this matter, to ensure that everybody's rights are protected. What is more, whilst the particular circumstances of this case are being fully investigated and determined—as to whether, for example, a prosecution should or should not take place—that should be independently considered first by the Federal Police and then the Director of Public Prosecutions. And, whilst that's occurring, let us all work together to ensure that anybody that has a complaint of this nature has a proper pathway to go forward to ensure that there is a clear mechanism. Surely that should have been part and parcel and the thrust of Senator Polley's and the Labor Party's contribution today, but sadly it was not. They were all cheap, tawdry and personal attacks against the minister. I, for one, the Prime Minister and the whole coalition look forward to seeing a pathway being developed for the protection of all the staff who work in this place.

3:43 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers to questions, and in particular Senator Wong's question to Senator Reynolds. But, before I go to that matter, I'd just like to, in a sense, congratulate Senator Abetz on his contribution. But there was one great big glaring hole in all of that contribution. On the night that this happened, no-one rang the police. I will shake my head forever as to why a security guard, a ministerial adviser, a DPS staffer and Senator Reynolds never thought to ring the police about what was clearly a serious crime that had been committed in this parliament.

The business that I want to refer to at the moment is Senator Reynolds' nonanswer, once again falling on a track record of nonanswers, to the naval shipbuilding inquiry in the economics committee. She did it again today. When asked, 'Why have you not made a decision, which you said you'd make in 2019?' She referred to our term of government and her government's investment in shipbuilding, submarines and the like. Where is the difficulty with this minister coming to grips with a decision which she had foreshadowed? Why is there such an ongoing black cloud over South Australia as to where this is? Why are there 750 workers wondering whether or not they've got a job in an area where we should be looking at confirming their position, recruiting more boilermakers, recruiting more engineers and recruiting more shipbuilding workers? There appears to be a continual hiatus in that office, a continual procrastination, a continual lack of decision-making. If you were to look at the debacle that has played itself out in the parliament for the last week or so, there clearly doesn't appear to be any strong ministerial leadership or any strong capability within the office. It seems to meander along from one disaster to the next.

When we in the naval shipbuilding inquiry and the like try to seek information about what capability plans are available, what expenditure is happening, we get stonewalled. We literally get told 'commercial in confidence', 'can't see it', 'can't do it'. It's quite extraordinary. I well remember asking questions of David Johnston, the former Senator from Western Australia, who was the Minister for Defence, and he'd give you a response. You may not like the response. As a matter of fact, one famous day in this chamber he gave you a response that no-one would like. About South Australian workers, he said, 'I wouldn't trust ASC to build a canoe'. Shortly after that he changed his career direction and went on to bigger and better things than Minister for Defence. He was never short of expertise and intelligent answers, but this minister appears to be bereft of expertise in her office and refuses to answer almost everything. There is literally almost not a question which we can craft that this minister will not find a way of avoiding.

We on this side are not playing trumps here. Defence is not an overtly political area. Once decisions about where things are made, where things are produced or where money is spent are made, people like to just get on and examine progress. Dare I say this: a government will never fall in Australia because Defence has overspent; it's almost inclined to overspend on everything it does. It often has three or four projects of concern requiring the attention of the Treasurer, the finance minister and the defence minister to try and get them back on track. So we have a minister who just blatantly refuses to provide information to properly constituted committees of the Senate and then, in question time, won't provide answers she knows to questions.

3:48 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This has been an incredibly difficult period for a lot of women, certainly for Ms Higgins, but there have been a lot of women, and I know across the aisle they would understand this, who have experienced abuse, assault, sexual harassment, rape. For a multitude of reasons, a lot of these women determine that they want to keep it private. It's not just one reason why they keep it private; it's for a whole lot of reasons. There are experiences that occur not just in Parliament House, not just through our own political parties but through a variety of experiences in different times of their lives. I find it absolutely and utterly shameful, this politicisation of Ms Higgins's experiences.

The lack of sympathy for her, of an understanding of her, the fact that it has been a number of years since this occurred and things change for people over time—a lot changes for lots of people at different times. Ms Higgins, at the time, decided not to pursue a police investigation that was offered to her. At one stage, Senator Reynolds was being criticised for not respecting her privacy but, as it unfolds, Senator Reynolds actually was respectful of her privacy by maintaining a very dignified silence and is continuing to do so around Ms Higgins' situation.

Now those opposite are somehow claiming that those wishes should have been disrespected, those wishes should have been ignored, that somehow they know best as to what was happening at that specific time and that Senator Reynolds should have just ignored the wishes of Ms Higgins—the wishes that Senator Reynolds respected, that she listened to. She supported Ms Higgins throughout this and offered, at every opportunity she could, her support to go with Ms Higgins, to support her both in a physical sense and in being present in whatever way that she wanted. This was followed up by Senator Cash also offering to go with her to make a police report. This is actual support. By trying to take down one woman whilst alleging to support another, you should be ashamed of yourselves, absolutely and utterly ashamed of yourselves.

I guess one of the things that also upsets me, and I think upsets and confounds a lot of people, is your willingness to attack Senator Reynolds, your willingness—like Senator Gallacher just did, absolutely outrageously claiming Senator Reynolds should have called the police on the night the incident occurred. If you want to be angry with the security guards for not doing it, sure; fair enough. But Senator Reynolds didn't know about it on the night that it occurred. In fact, she didn't learn about it for a couple of days, when she was told about a security breach, is my understanding, not about an incident that occurred. You can't rewrite history because it suits your disgraceful narrative.

During the last election campaign, another woman made some allegations and a lot on the other side of the chamber were pretty quick to dismiss those, pretty quick to diminish that woman, pretty quick to race to the defence of their then leader. I hope you've all had a good hard look at yourselves, with this faux outrage and this absolutely pathetic effort in what you're trying to do to Minister Reynolds. I hope you are reaching out to Ms Sheriff and offering support to her—absolutely abhorrent behaviour, trying to tear down one woman with a rewriting of history—she who did absolutely everything by the book, as required. The minister in charge of defence industry, the minister who was told of a security breach, not of an incident, and now we're rewriting history to suit an absolutely disgraceful agenda.

But I am wondering at what time the Labor Party or anyone else in this chamber might find a little outrage for the alleged perpetrator—perhaps even Ms Wilkinson, who left it to the 29th minute of that interview to even mention him. Perhaps, at some stage, you might realise that there was someone else that inflicted this alleged attack on Ms Higgins. Yet we have silence, a total silence of anger or empathy or any feelings towards the alleged perpetrator in what he allegedly contributed to Ms Higgins— (Time expired)

3:53 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What's missing here is leadership. What's missing here is the inability of a minister to provide a time line of duty of care, of responsibility, of questions by senators to the Senate. What's missing here is the inability of a minister to talk straight, to talk honestly, consistently. Every minister in this cabinet has a responsibility to this parliament. So when they are questioned, whether in the Senate or in the House, they have a responsibility to respond to the questions.

There is no disagreement around the need to have absolute empathy, sincere concern, for a young woman whose story has been shown right across this country. We're not fighting over who feels more disgusted about what occurred here. What we demand to know in this Senate is what duty of care and responsibility those in power, who are responsible for others, have to their staff? That is a question we will continue to ask. That is a question we must ask. Not to do so would be an abrogation of our responsibility. Right now, the ones who are abrogating that responsibility are the minister and the Prime Minister, because these questions must be asked and they must be answered. We have hundreds of staffers and workers in this building, and the rest of the country wants to know that we are able to reach to the highest of levels, above all political persuasions, to make this place a safe place.

When the minister comes in here with one response to a question by a senator and then changes that response in responding to another question by another senator, we deserve the right to pursue this minister to hear the truth. What is your truth-telling here, Minister? Do the right thing. Speak your truth. All we hear is hidden messages, ducking and weaving. You are a leader in this government. You are supposed to be a leader in this Senate. You have a responsibility and a duty of care, not only to those around you but to our country, as the Minister for Defence. Minister, if you cannot speak straight and honestly in the Senate, where you must be held accountable, then how can any Australian expect you to do that out there? How can our defence forces expect you to do that out there? When we ask you questions about the AFP, about your role in your meetings with them, you need to be clear. In one response today you said one thing about the AFP; 10 minutes later, you couldn't remember what you'd said about the AFP. It is our duty as senators in this Senate to ask these questions.

There is no challenge as to who feels more disgusted and angered by the events of this past fortnight and, in fact, the past couple of years; only Ms Higgins holds that. But we, as senators, have to pursue what we believe is the right thing to do, and that is to understand the honesty and the truth-telling that is yet to come from you.

Question agreed to.