Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Leigh Sales: Senator Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Finance. He is leading the review into parliament's workplace culture. Thank you for joining us. On the Brittany Higgins matter, can I ask when did you first become aware of the alleged rape at Parliament House?
Simon Birmingham: So I only became aware of the alleged rape when the media story became public. I had been made aware at an earlier point in relation to the storage of CCTV footage about an incident that the AFP had shown interest in. The President of the Senate had advised me, as I understand, he had previously advised the then leader of the government in the Senate and the leader of the opposition in the Senate in accordance with practises just around those CCTV issues.
Leigh Sales: And did you not ask what it was in relation to?
Simon Birmingham: I was told at the time that that it was being stored at the request of the AFP, but that the AFP did not have an active investigation underway at the time.
Leigh Sales: But you must have been a bit curious because that would be presumably pretty interesting that the AFP was seeking CCTV footage.
Simon Birmingham: Well, we can all be curious Leigh, but it's also important that we let the authorities in this case, the Australian Federal Police, to actually do their jobs, not just the responsibility.
Leigh Sales: You didn't ask at the time? What it was about?
Simon Birmingham: It wasn't my place, wasn't my place to go and ask about matters that pertain to the police investigation. It was my place to be advised by the parliamentary office holders that the right thing was being done in terms of the CCTV footage being stored for the purposes of any investigation that the AFP want to undertake. And in no way would I want to get in the way of any such investigation.
Leigh Sales: Did any rumours come to your ears that it could be some sort of sexual matter?
Simon Birmingham: No, not at that stage.
Leigh Sales: You're running the government side of the cross-party review. How close are you to appointing an independent person to run that and what kind of progress has been made?
Simon Birmingham: So, look, I have had conversations throughout the course of this week with former staff, with the sex discrimination commissioner and other experts in this field, with representatives of the Labor Party, of the Greens, of different independents. And I'm pleased to see that there's a high level of consensus around the need for a truly independent review that's undertaken at arm's length of government, one that can look effectively at how we change culture and prevent these incidences, be it sexual assault, harassment, bullying from occurring in the future. How we make sure there's effective supports in place for staff, particularly to have the confidence, to report incidents and to know that they will be supported through the reporting of any incidents and effective advice for individuals.
Leigh Sales: Anyone appointed yet?
Simon Birmingham: I haven't reached a point of an appointment. I have further discussions through the rest of this week with other staff representatives, with union representatives. And at the end of that, I hope that we can proceed quickly to finalise the terms of reference and appointment.
Leigh Sales: On the complaints process it's the finance minister who deals with whose department deals with staff complaints. It's a problematic system where the findings of the complaint go back to the minister or the MP whose office is involved. There's not a lot of recourse for the staffer. Do you think that should be overhauled?
Simon Birmingham: I think these are very valid things for the review to take a look at. And that's why I want to make sure that it is a genuine, independent, arm's length review that can come back with the appropriate recommendations for how we can make staff in this place feel amongst the safest in the country as they should be, and protected with the best practises in the country as they should be. And that's certainly my aspiration in going into this work. And I know it's shared by those across party lines who I've engaged with in recent days.
Leigh Sales: I checked with Brittany Higgins this afternoon whether the prime minister or any liberal ministers had personally reached out to her since this matter became public. And the answer was no. Why is that?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I can't speak for others. Clearly, it's only become public as a result of media interviews. I understand that Brittany Higgins's spoke with the police today, which is something we welcome and we'll give full cooperation to. In terms of the review I'm undertaking. I have seen in Brittany's statements that she is keen to have a say in the construct that review.
Leigh Sales: But I'm sorry to interrupt you, Senator. I'm just asking on a human level, why no one has reached out to a former colleague?
Simon Birmingham: I just wanted to say, Leigh, that I have made clear that I am keen if Brittany wishes to hear from her or to speak with her about the construct of that review and for her to have that input, which I know she thinks is important.
Leigh Sales: But does it strike you as odd that a former young Liberal staffer has alleged that she was raped in a minister's office and that she felt hung out to dry to the need that to the degree that she felt she needed to go public about it? And no senior liberal in the parliament has rung her to go, wow, I'm really sorry. I hope you're OK.
Simon Birmingham: The job that I've got is hopefully to make sure that in the future people can have absolute confidence to take these matters to the police or to get the support services to talk about it with others who can advise and assist them through this so that they don't have to go to the media first and undertake the harrowing ordeal of sharing these stories publicly. We would much rather that a police investigation happen where it's a criminal offence or that indeed the support is there to help people deal with other issues up front and to see them satisfactorily resolved.
Leigh Sales: As a minister if a criminal incident took place in your office, would you feel it, your obligation to inform the prime minister?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I'd say my obligation first and foremost as making sure that the victim or involved person had support available to them, counselling, support and assistance, that they were encouraged if it was a criminal matter, to take it to the police. And then I would think in terms of a judgement call to tell the Prime Minister of the existence of the incident. But I do think you have to be mindful of protecting if it is the wish of the individual to have their privacy protected to protect that as well.
Leigh Sales: But from what? From what I understand, your inclination as a minister would be to brief the prime minister in that kind of a scenario.
Simon Birmingham: It would be, Leigh. But my first consideration would be for the individual trying to encourage them to get the support that they need. I'm not a professional in providing that support, nor would you or any other employer be. That's why we have professional counsellors as why we should make sure that they are there to be accessed. And then, of course, if it is a criminal matter to encourage and support them to go to the police for the thorough investigation.
Leigh Sales: On another matter, JobKeeper, when you take together the rate at which unemployment benefits are set, the new dob-in scheme, if people decline a job, the requirement to show that you've applied for 20 jobs per month isn't it a fair conclusion that the system is punitive, that if you have the misfortune to find yourself in a recession unemployed, that you will be punished for that.
Simon Birmingham: Leigh, what we've seen is that each and every month, including during the step downs, the different rates of JobKeeper in the JobSeeker supplement, there have been more jobs created in the Australian economy. And we do know that there are parts of the country that are crying out for people to fill jobs. It's one of the changes we announced yesterday was not just the existence of the six thousand dollar relocation allowance for people who can move, but that some of that will now be able to be paid up front to help people with the upfront costs of moving to where there may be work that people can undertake. I know it's not always easy there, but I think Australians do expect us to have a system that provides a social safety net as we do, but also an expectation on those who are able to work to be actively looking and to take those jobs where they're available.
Leigh Sales: Senator Birmingham, thank you for your time tonight.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Leigh. My pleasure.