Senate debates

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Sexual Harassment, March 4 Justice, Women's Safety

3:21 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by Senator Payne to the questions asked by Senators McAllister, Keneally and McCarthy today.

I rise to take note of the failure of this government to take substantive action against sexual harassment of women in the workplace and their failure to take real action against the violence and threat of violence women face every single day. They cannot even roll out a school program about respectful relationships in a reasonable time frame, not here in this country.

These are the words of the Prime Minister yesterday in response to the thousands of women who rallied around Australia in protest against violence and harassment, to say enough is enough, to call for national leadership on this issue, which should be a turning point for gendered violence issues in this country. Instead, we get told we should be lucky—grateful, even—that we aren't shot when we take to the streets to protest this, that we should be grateful our cries of protest against violence aren't met with violence. Not good enough. Not nearly good enough. We have a history of meeting pleas from women to stop the violence with violence. Women know this. First Nations women, in particular, know this. I'm not going to talk about the statistics, because I want to talk about the women, the people who, in their own words, aren't just numbers.

Some of you may remember a group of First Nations women from Central Australia who came to Canberra three years ago to bring us their message about combatting family violence and calling for support. These women were from the Tangentyere Women's Family Safety Group. They spent days here in Parliament House, meeting with senators, meeting with government ministers, telling all about the work they do on the frontline of family violence in Alice Springs. These women, in 2017, organised the largest women's march in Central Australia to protest against and draw attention to violence against First Nations women.

It was sparked by anger and frustration when one of the friends of the family was badly injured by an intimate partner, yet her near death garnered no headlines, no comment, no outrage. However, more than 300 people joined in the Alice Springs action to highlight Aboriginal women and children and families who are living with, have been injured by or are dying from violence. They made the decision to bring their message here to Canberra and to show First Nations women all over the country that we can stand up and be heard, that we do have the solutions and need to be part of the decision-making. These remarkable and strong women came to Canberra and they made an impact.

One of these women, a core member of the group, was a woman who was dedicated to changing lives and to working to combat violence against women. Well, I attended her funeral on Friday. She was killed earlier this year after being run down by a car allegedly driven by her partner. She was killed outside the Alice Springs Hospital, a place where people go to seek help and healing. She was killed, despite her work advocating that the voices of First Nations women need to be heard. When she came to Canberra and asked us to listen and stand with her and the other women who flew all that way—and for many of them it was their first time out of Alice Springs—they wanted us to hear their solutions, acknowledge their experience and recognise the important work that is being done at a community level to deal with issues of domestic and family violence. She urged the government to listen to a wide range of First Nations voices regarding family and domestic violence issues and commit to genuine collaboration and partnerships with women at the community level when making family and domestic violence policies.

So yesterday, when hundreds of thousands of men and women marched across this country, thinking and reflecting on their own experiences and those of people that they know and love, I remembered her, knowing that she came here three years ago to ask this government to act. And three years later we still have a government that won't listen, that won't act and that turns its back, just like we saw today.

3:26 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers. I am going to find it hard to get through this take note debate today because we, as women of the coalition, are a part of women of Australia and we all share in the distress, the anguish and the horror of sexual assaults right across this land. Yesterday, I was scheduled to speak here in the chamber and was not able to be there for the start of the march. I committed to going down to lend my presence to the issue of sexual assault in workplaces right across this land. I listened to the words spoken by Senator McCarthy. I too am frustrated and horrified by the ongoing assaults, particularly in Indigenous communities but right across my part of the world in Northern Queensland.

I spend time with the women's centre, with Yumba-Meta, in Townsville, understanding their challenges and the role that they play in supporting victims, both men and women. Yet I find myself today somehow not quite good enough a woman. Somehow I find myself today not woman enough to be included by the opposition. You would think that our shared experiences would in some way bind us. But, instead, I again find part of my voice being taken away and the people I represent being taken away. I weep that, in somehow holding up people—individuals—who have had no part in these assaults, we are politicising an issue that should never be in this chamber. We are good men, and good women, yet we have to be lectured on not being women enough.

I do stand with the victims of these assaults. I am horrified and outraged that this should happen, that this should still be happening in this land. And it is not just in parliament. It is in workplaces, communities, homes, hospitals and retirement villages. Yet, instead of standing together, instead of this being a bipartisan event to try to stamp this out, to educate and to provide resources, we are going to turn this into another way of dividing us.

I am disappointed beyond words, because when I go and speak to communities, women's centres and men's centres, this is not the story I want to take back—that we are not united, that there is not a deep desire to see sexual assaults in this land finish. This government has committed funding to centres, has spoken on this, has provided resources in every state and territory. And the next person who seeks to politicise this by making it somehow the responsibility of some people who are not the right sort, not the right gender, not the right colour, not the right party or not from the right region should be ashamed, because they perpetuate this attack on the very people we should be working together with.

3:31 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge Senator McDonald's attendance, as well as others from the other side, because where the apology really should be going is to the fact that the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Women didn't attend the rally. That's where the politicisation has occurred. What I'm saying is that this is bipartisan support for making sure that the voice of women and the serious matters we're dealing with right now in this place are dealt with appropriately. As we've seen over the past eight years, the government has once again failed to rise to the occasion that is before it. Yesterday hundreds of thousands of courageous Australian women around the country embarked on the historic March 4 Justice. In stark contrast to the limp excuses put forward by those opposite in recent weeks, we heard powerful, brilliant speeches by incredible women, like Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame. And for the 12 million Australian men: your job is to listen—our job is to listen—whether you joined the protests in the streets around the country or not. For those cowering in this building, as the Prime Minister chose to do: you need to listen.

Men and women in the Morrison government: you have the power to do so much more. But instead of rising to the occasion, instead of seizing this opportunity to take a stand against the pandemic of sexual harassment in this country and in this building, the Prime Minister has proactively obstructed and undermined those seeking long-overdue justice. The Prime Minister refused to meet the rally just outside these doors. The Deputy Prime Minister refused to meet the rally just outside these doors. The Minister for Women refused to meet the rally just outside these doors. Instead, the Prime Minister declared it a triumph that these courageous women were not 'met with bullets'.

The Prime Minister believes that the women of Australia should be content that they can protest without being murdered in the streets and that they should be satisfied with that. What lofty ambition the Prime Minister of Australia has for the women of this country! It's hardly surprising when the same Prime Minister announced he could only sympathise with Brittany Higgins because he is a father. No-one will ever say it better than Grace Tame, Australian of the Year, did at the National Press Club:

It shouldn't take having children to have a conscience. And, actually, on top of that, having children doesn't guarantee a conscience.

Indeed, it does not.

This is a government which sends senior cabinet ministers on indefinite paid leave, hoping that the scandals will blow over. One such minister is the Minister for Defence, who failed her duty of care to her staff member, who mishandled the most serious claim of misconduct, of sexual assault, which has ever taken place in this building, who called Brittany Higgins—who has displayed such incredible courage in coming forward not just for herself but for victims of sexual assault around Australia—a 'lying cow'. The minister only apologised for that remark upon threat of a defamation lawsuit. This is conduct unbecoming any manager or employer, let alone a federal cabinet minister.

Speaking of lawsuits, we have the Attorney-General, who announced yesterday, while on indefinite paid leave at the time, that he was suing the ABC journalist who revealed the allegations made against him, rather than being accountable and doing the right thing, rather than standing down pending an independent inquiry. Of course, the government, instead, is attacking the media. The only legal action the Morrison government is taking on these rape allegations is not against the Attorney-General. The only legal action being taken is against a female journalist, for having the audacity to do her job. This is a disgraceful approach but one which is consistent with the Morrison government's attitude towards women.

In 2003, when the then Governor-General, Peter Hollingworth, was accused of rape, the then Prime Minister stood him down pending an investigation. What's happening with the Attorney-General? (Time expired)

3:36 pm

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

People listening in to this debate will see a great distinction between the contribution of Senator McDonald and those from the other side. Senator McDonald's contribution was poignant, considered and oozing with wise counsel. It was very, very considered, not seeking to play the cheap political card. The issues that we are dealing with are sensitive. Peoples' lives are at stake—women's lives and the lives of those who are accused. We always have to keep that in balance and in mind.

When Senator Sheldon made his contribution about the Attorney-General, of course he did not reflect on his former leader, who was similarly accused. We on this side have accepted the fact that it was investigated and the appropriate authorities determined not to proceed with it. The same standard ought to be applying to the Attorney-General. Indeed, if it is asserted by those opposite that somehow, because the police haven't proceeded, there should be a judicial inquiry into alleged behaviour when the Attorney was still a minor, why not have a similar inquiry into the behaviour of the member for Maribyrnong? There's no answer to that from the opposition, is there, because they seek to play politics with this very, very important issue.

As somebody who has volunteered his services to help establish a women's shelter—I was on the inaugural committee; I was the honorary legal adviser for many years; and I still have an interest in this area—I know the pain and the suffering that is inflicted upon the womenfolk of this country. I sought to do something about it from my own resources and my own capacities, along with a group of wonderfully dedicated individuals, both male and, especially, female.

Violence toward each other should be condemned, full stop. Violence by physically stronger people against physically weaker people is abhorrent—and so it is usually violence by men against women—and it needs to be condemned outright. Indeed, I've said before and I'll say again that talking about domestic violence I think demeans that which actually goes on. Domestic violence is actually assault. It's a crime. It should be treated as a crime and not dressed up as something that is somewhat a bit different to assault because it happened to occur at home.

These things need to be considered very carefully and very maturely. Senator McCarthy, very disappointingly, in her contribution sought to condemn the federal government as though the Northern Territory Labor government had no legislative responsibility or capacity in this area. It does. We know it does. Why only seek to blame the federal Liberal government for insufficient activity when the problem may well lie with the Northern Territory government? I don't seek to do that. I say to everybody in this chamber and Australia that trying to blame a Liberal government, a Labor government, this person or that person is playing cheap politics with a very important issue. It demeans those who seek to do it.

In concluding I rely again on the very wise words of my friend and colleague Senator Susan McDonald, who was able to express her point of view and her disappointment at the way that she herself has been handled in this debate and many other good men and women. Let's all work together to achieve an outcome to ensure that everybody in our community is safe, especially our womenfolk.

3:42 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What the questions and answers in question time really revealed was the entire absence and invisibility of the Minister for Women, not just over the last three or four weeks but over the last two years she has been in that position. There are enormous challenges that Australian women face. More women than men lost jobs during the COVID-19 period. The new jobs that have been created, which the government celebrates so much, have largely been casual and low-wage jobs—mostly women's jobs. So not only have Australian women had the biggest hit from COVID-19 in terms of losing their jobs but the jobs that have been created have been low-quality jobs. The gender wage gap persists. There have been nearly 900 deaths since 2008 caused by domestic and family violence. I am not convinced that the scourge of violence against women and children has got any better over that period, and there is much to suggest that it's getting worse. Just lately there have been revelations of an alleged rape not very far from the Prime Minister's office. Misogyny exists in some quarters of this parliament. Parliament should be the exemplar for Australian people, not one of the worst workplaces for Australian women.

The unequal position of women in this country diminishes all of us. I absolutely reject the mean-spirited values that underpin the Prime Minister's statement that he was all for equality, just as long as men didn't have to go backwards in the process. The great irony of that statement is that the only reason that the gender wage gap has shrunk by a tiny amount is that the Prime Minister's industrial relations policies have driven the wages of blue-collar men down over the last couple of years.

Violence diminishes us all. Unequal pay diminishes us all. Disrespect at work diminishes us all. Misogyny diminishes us all, and where on earth, amidst all of this, is the invisible Minister for Women? Yesterday 10,000 women and thousands of men gathered outside this parliament. I acknowledge those coalition members and senators who came out as well. Where was the Minister for Women? She was hiding in this chamber, invisible to the outside world, with a confected excuse for staying in here. How can she possibly rationalise the decision to stay away from that rally? She is supposed to be the Minister for Women. She is supposed to be an advocate for change. She is supposed to be finding ways, through policy and politics in this place, to lift the status of women. But where was she? Nowhere, and there's been plenty of opportunity. The Respect@work report, more than 12 months ago, had basic steps to elevate the position of Australian women and protect them at work. There was an almost zero—three out of 55—response from this government.

The events over the course of the last three or four weeks have laid bare just how weak the government's response is when faced with the kinds of allegations that Ms Higgins has brought forward, that others have brought forward, that have been brought forward against the Attorney-General. The government's response has been entirely about political management, not protecting the interests of women, not dealing with issues on their merits—an entirely political response. Where has the Minister for Women been? She's been entirely invisible. In terms of ministers for women in this place, we had two years of Tony Abbott as the minister for women, two years of Senator Cash as the Minister for Women, two years of Kelly O'Dwyer as the Minister for Women and now we've had two long years of Minister Payne. I am not convinced about which of those two-year periods has been the worst, characterised by the least action, characterised by the total invisibility of this minister.

Question agreed to.