Interview on ABC 891, Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Parliamentary proceedings, assault allegations.
31 July 2019

David Bevan: Let's welcome our panellists, all Senators from South Australia. Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Liberal Senator, good morning to you…

Ali Clarke:Mm-hmm, he's on his way.

David Bevan: Oh, he's on his way. Don Farrell, Labor Senator from South Australia… good morning, Don Farrell…

Don Farrell: Ah, good morning, David and Ali.

David Bevan: …and Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator, good morning to you.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Good morning, thanks for having me.

David Bevan: Now, in a moment, we'll come to each of you on this topic of the allegations of sexual assault by members of the Liberal Party by their colleagues and, as Ali says, there's two elements to this story. One is the alleged assault against these women and then the second part is how the Liberal Party responded to this and it's been described as a call by them to end a toxic Liberal Party culture and have much greater transparency and we'll come to that in a moment when Simon Birmingham is able to join us, because obviously, as a Liberal Senator, we need to hear what he's got to say. Can we also begin, though, with you, Don Farrell? The issue of Question Time… now, there are reforms planned for Question Time and we saw a photo… again, I think it was in The Sydney Morning Herald… of the Labor side of politics during Question Time… all of the frontbench, I think, had their phones out, they were just looking at their phones. Now, maybe they were getting instructions from staffers on what to do next but it wasn't a good look. Is it absolutely clear that we do need to have a reform of Question Time?

Don Farrell: Um, look, I think there's… what's being proposed here is an inquiry into whether or not Question Time should be improved. I think having spent almost 12 years here, I have to say that there's always room for improvement. I mean, Question Time is just, I guess, a small aspect of what goes on in Canberra – it's the part that the public tends to see, because it's televised and it's generally pretty theatrical. There's a lot of other things go on in Parliament, obviously, and a lot of good work is done, behind the scenes, in the committees, that's often not reported on but, look, this inquiry, I think, will look at the whole issue of Question Time. You've got… it operates differently between the House and the Senate – it's not exactly the same – but I think this gives people an opportunity to have a think about it. There's a number of things that are being raised – should there be Dorothy Dixers where, you know, the Government simply asks itself a question and then generally congratulates itself on something that they've done?

Ali Clarke:Well, then, Don Farrell, do you think that is something that should be taken out of Question Time?

Don Farrell: Um, look, obviously, it's an issue of the numbers. If the Government doesn't want to change Question Time, it won't be changed and, to be honest with you, both sides of Parliament have used the Dorothy Dixer system when they've been in government but, look, yeah, I think it's time to have a review. I think it can be improved. I think it can be more entertaining and hopefully, with some changes, you'd be able to get better answers and maybe even better questions.

Ali Clarke:Alright, well, let's go to Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for South Australia. Do you think Question Time needs to change?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Oh, I think Question Time's become a farce, frankly, and I think all you need to do is watch what goes on in the House or in the Senate in Question Time and you've got ministers not answering questions, you've got Dorothy Dixers to make themselves seem good and you've got pretty bad behaviour, really. I often sit there in Question Time and look up in the galleries and see the schoolkids watching and think 'oh dear, I hope they don't think this is how they should be behaving when they get back on the bus or when they get back to the classroom.' It's just… it's really… I think it's pretty… you know, it's become a joke. If we want genuine questions answered, we really have to reform it.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, time to reform Question Time?

Simon Birmingham: Ah, look, you know, this issue comes up with great frequency and various attempts are made and the Senate… and I note you've got three Senators on, this morning, talking about Question Time… we have quite a different Question Time to the House of Reps, with supplementary questions being asked – whether that makes a great world of difference, I'm far from convinced but, you know, look, there's a House inquiry looking into it and they can undertake their examination.

David Bevan: Okay. Now, to return to the issue which is occupying a lot of time… and thank you for joining us now, Simon Birmingham, we appreciate that you're a bit a late this morning for good reasons. These allegations of sexual assault against two Liberal staffers… serious as they are, they're compounded by what looks like an appalling response from your own party to their concerns.

Ali Clarke:For those that haven't heard this, we're just going to hear a little bit from a report that played out on Nine News last night and I just want to warn: some of this… for some people, it might be distressing here are some of the horrible allegations of sexual assault. Both of these women claim that they were assaulted while working for the Liberal Party.

Dhanya Mani: A man who I didn't want to be in my home came to my home uninvited and was on top of me, choking me and achieving sexual gratification from that while I couldn't move and couldn't speak … senior Liberals would say to me that I should just kiss him and give him some sort of consolation prize.

Ali Clarke: So that was one former Liberal staffer forcing himself on somebody else, or the allegation of that, and the other person worked for a well-known federal politician and spoke to the response that she got from the Party once she told them what had happened to her.

Eryk Bagshaw: While in Canberra, she claims, in 2015, another senior staff member pinned her down and ripped off her underpants. A few months after confiding in two other colleagues on how to deal with the incident, she received a call – 'we are considering this guy for pre-selection; would you feel compelled to speak out if he was pre-selected?'

David Bevan: That's the Channel Nine reporter voicing her concerns and her version of what happened. Simon Birmingham, how do you…

Sarah Hanson-Young: The whole thing is just disgusting.

David Bevan: How do you respond to that?

Simon Birmingham: David, what I would say to anybody, whether they work in government or elsewhere is… you know, obviously these allegations themselves are deeply concerning and distressing but anybody in those sorts of circumstances should use the type of proper processes that are available to them. They should obviously… where these instances, which are of claims of sexual assault… they should contact police. If they need additional assistance, they should reach out to government-funded organisations like 1800RESPECT or the Women's Information Service in South Australia. In terms of dealing in the workplace, they should use, again, the processes that are there, raise it with their employer. I do note, in this story, that, in both cases, the individuals state they did not raise it with the Member of Parliament they were employed by. They should raise it with their employer. For federal staff who work within Federal Parliament, the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act covers them and there are very clear processes within the Department of Finance where staff can seek advice, request counselling, lodge a complaint, request a formal investigation, so we do have quite clear processes that are in place and I would urge anybody in any of these circumstances to reach out and to use those processes.

Ali Clarke:But, Simon Birmingham, that presumes that people feel that they can reach out to those processes. These people are alleging they reached out to people around them, support that they felt that they could get within your party, and the responses that they got varied from 'well, maybe just, you know, throw him a bone as such' or alternatively then being contacted later to say 'will you speak out if this person is put up for pre-selection?'

Simon Birmingham: Well, it's hard to comment, Ali, not knowing of course who was spoken to in these circumstances and that's why I'm giving the clear message: speak to your employer, use the processes that are there and, where it is an assault allegation, these matters of course should be dealt with by the police. We have… and I again reiterate… for all Members of Parliament staff at the federal level, there are very clear processes in place where they can work through the Department of Finance, if they don't feel they can raise it for some reason with their employing Member of Parliament or their supervisor in those offices.

Ali Clarke:Do you appreciate how hard it would be, Simon Birmingham, though? Do you appreciate how hard it would be for some victims to be able to go through a process? A lot of them don't even feel comfortable to get to the stage where they will go to police.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, Ali, but what are you suggesting the alternative can be, there? I mean, you have to have proper processes to handle these matters…

David Bevan: Well, maybe the alternative would be that the Liberal Party, the people that they turn to, their colleagues… I mean, one of these women joined the Party at 17… the party that they had devoted themselves treat them with a lot more respect?

Simon Birmingham: Well… and let me say that, for any other staff member or party member who has allegations of this nature raised with them… they ought to do as I have just done and encourage people to use all of the proper processes that are available to them. You have to have process in place.

David Bevan: When did you hear about this first, Simon Birmingham? Did this come as a surprise then it hit the media yesterday?

Simon Birmingham: Um, it came as a surprise when I heard that journalists were asking about it in the last couple of days, yes.

David Bevan: So you hadn't heard about this? You did not know of these allegations?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not.

David Bevan: It's all news to you?

Simon Birmingham: Abs… it is all news to me, David.

David Bevan: Do you think that there is a toxic culture within the Liberal Party which prevents women like this being treated properly?

Simon Birmingham: No, I do not. I reject that assertion but I really do urge everybody, whether they are the victim of such a matter or whether indeed they have it raised with them, to use those processes that are available – that's why they're there, that's why they're established and that's why we have counselling services available for staff, that's why we have proper processes in place and that ultimately is, of course, why we have investigatory bodies such as the police there to handle and investigate such matters if they are of a criminal nature, as they allegations appear to be.

Ali Clarke:Have you taken any steps to ensure there's no possible connection between these women and any of your close colleagues or former colleagues or to get to the bottom of what has happened with this or have you stepped back and letting it unfold?

Simon Birmingham: Ali, I'm not an investigatory body – that is why you have proper processes in place; that's why, if people want matters investigated, they ought to, if they are of a criminal nature, take them to the police. If they need additional help or support and they think they cannot get it within their workplace, then they ought to of course use all of those types of government-funded services, like 1800RESPECT that I identified earlier, where you can get proper advice, support and so forth but there are processes and that's… they're there to make sure that natural justice applies, that people get a fair hearing but also that relevant support, counselling assistance, is given for what are very concerning and distressing allegations.

David Bevan: That's the voice of Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia. Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator, is listening to this.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Oh, look, I… this is a horrific situation for these two young women and not only the alleged assaults themselves but then it really is about how it's been responded to that is the bigger question and the bigger problem for the Liberal Party and I think now the Prime Minister, who has, as Kathryn Greiner today has pointed out, enormous authority and… he needs to do something about this, because it is about the culture. Now, this idea that, when one of these young women did reach out for help to senior members in the Party and as… reportedly was told, you know, 'just give him a kiss' or effectively a sympathy encounter…

David Bevan: A 'consolation prize'.

Sarah Hanson-Young: A consolation prize… I mean, sadly, that's of the same ilk as, when issues that were raised about the treatment of women at the end of last year in the Liberal Party, when Craig Kelly went on national television and said 'oh, people just need to roll with the punches' – it's the same problem, it's the same lack of understanding about what needs to happen to reform providing a safe environment but also a nurturing environment, particularly for younger women in politics and, you know, when I last year named a number of the people who I'd had issues with over the last few years in this place, I became inundated with stories and questions from young women in politics from all sides, Labor, Liberal, and even young journalists who work up here in Canberra. There is a problem with the culture of how politics deals with the needs of women when they find themselves in this situation. The Prime Minister has an opportunity, with his authority, to not just, you know, clean up stuff in the Liberal Party but to show how it should be done across the board and I urge him to use this opportunity.

David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young, thank you for your time. Don Farrell, we need to give you an opportunity. I suppose, look, everybody's talking from the same page, the people on this panel this morning. This is the sort of thing you would expect a cross-party support on?

Don Farrell: Um, I think that's right, David. I guess the concerning aspect of these allegations is that issues were raised by these young women but they were ignored by more senior people in the Labor Party… ah, sorry, in the Liberal Party. Women have got a right to feel safe at work, there's got to be zero tolerance for sexual assaults and I think now is the opportunity for the Prime Minister to step up, take these allegations seriously, properly investigate them and deal with them the way that they should have been dealt with in the first place.

David Bevan: And do it quickly?

Don Farrell: And, I think, do it quickly – I think you're right there, David. I think obviously these women believe that the matter has gone on for too long, that they haven't been taken seriously and now would like the Liberal Party but, more particularly, I think, the Prime Minister to take the allegations seriously and to deal with them.

David Bevan: Yep. Now, we were going to ask all of you about China Plate, this restaurant in Canberra, but, frankly, it doesn't seem appropriate after talking about something as serious as this, so I think we'll leave it there. Don Farrell, thank you for your time.

Don Farrell: Thank you, David.

David Bevan: Labor Senator for South Australia. Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator from SA…

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.

David Bevan: …and Sarah Hanson-Young from the Greens.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Thank you.

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