Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Saturday, 27 February 2021
Simon Birmingham: Thank you for coming today, I want to say a few words about my colleague, the Member for Boothby, Nicolle Flint. Nicolle has announced her intention to not recontest the next election. And Nicolle's decision is one that we respect and understand. It's a personal decision by her, very personal one, but also one I can confirm informed by her desire to continue advocating in different ways to ensure that everybody engaged in the political debates of our nation are engaged in a safe and respectful manner. I spoke to Nicolle today about her decisions, and that was her one message, that she wanted to make sure was heard by all. To make sure that people understand the desire to see political engagement, occur in safe and respectable ways.
Nicolle has over her two terms in parliament been a passionate advocate for the people of Boothby, securing critical infrastructure projects in her local community, been a champion of quite sensitive and challenging issues, sharing her personal stories in relation to her own health battles and particularly working with those affected by endometriosis, and working with those impacted by the tragic loss of stillbirth. I think Nicolle has shown incredible strength in championing and advocating such difficult and sensitive and personal issues through her time.
But it's also no secret that she faced a very bitter election campaign last time and that she saw appalling behaviour towards her and her campaign during that election and indeed, Nicolle has been on the record consistently since in terms of pointing out where behaviour, particularly attacks from the left, from Get Up! and others, have threatened her and have threatened her office staff, the volunteers and those working alongside her.
Just most recently, on the 17th of February, Nicolle spoke in the House of Representatives about the latest protests, attacks in graffitiing of her office, and just the inappropriate way in which people were seeking to make their political points. And her view, is that people can obviously disagree, should have passionate policy discussions, but that it shouldn't denigrate to the point of graffiting offices, of personal slurs, let alone the type of stalking and harassment that she faced in the last campaign. So we respect and understand the Nicolle's decision not to recontest the next election. It's disappointing. The Liberal Party of course, will go through our normal processes involving all of our grassroots members in Boothby to select, I'm sure, another outstanding candidate to continue Nicolle's work, the Liberal Party's work in a seat that we've held since 1949.
Personally, I want to say that over many years I've seen the types of behaviour in campaigning that I can understand rattles candidates and causes genuine concerns for people's safety, as Nicolle has felt at different times. And indeed, as I know others felt on the way. When I was a marginal seat candidate in 2004, I had a boulder thrown through my campaign office window that smashed it, we had different protests, different disruptions. And these types of attacks on campaigns and on political candidates do nothing to advance the causes. In the time since 2004, the rise of social media has only made matters worse. And frankly, for politicians and candidates, for journalists as well, all those engaged in the political class. If you were to go through and constantly read all of the messages about you on social media, it would be a constant exercise in self harm and the best thing to do is to turn away. But it shouldn't be like that. Now, unfortunately, all political parties have cheer squads who say and do things that are inappropriate and that they shouldn't do. And my message to all of them is just to stop it, to rise above it. To recognise that everybody in politics, be they the journalist, be they the politicians, be they the unpaid candidates offering themselves for the first time for office. They are there to pursue policies and issues and they'll respond to your policies and issues but leave the personal vitriol behind, leave the anonymous hatred, leave the attacks and the viciousness behind. Let's try to make sure that every day citizens through to political activists don't just hurl abuse through anonymous Twitter trolling or front up and violate offices and campaigns and harass or intimidate candidates. Let's actually try to all commit to having a more respectful and safer political debate, as Nicolle has wished for and certainly within the parliament and the issues that we have faced that have been highlighted in the last couple of weeks, it is my deep intent and desire to make sure that the multi-party, independent review that I've been consulting on achieves a workplace and working environment that affords maximum respect, maximum safety and maximum knowledge of how to address difficult issues in the future.
Question: It's being reported that Nicolle felt that the South Australian Liberal Party did little to protect her from that abuse and bullying, do you think the Liberal Party could have done more?
Simon Birmingham: A lot was done during the last campaign to try to support Nicolle, at the campaigning levels from the Premier, through myself and others did what we could in terms of multiple visits and action on the ground in working with Nicolle, at the leadership level there were many discussions to try to work through the best way to support her in a very challenging environment. And it did ultimately lead, as people would recall to police engagement during that campaign. I think we all would wish that Nicolle had not faced that, and we particularly wish, and she would wish, that it had not continued after the election campaign, after she called it out, after it was so publicised that you still, just early this year had extinction rebellion types fronting up to her office, graffiting her office, undertaking actions that just undermine the confidence of someone like Nicolle or any other candidate frankly, to feel that they can campaign in a safe environment in a country like Australia. All of our candidates should feel that they can get out there safely.
Question: Does her resignation show that it is harder to be a woman in parliament, particularly in the Liberal Party?
Simon Birmingham: No, I don't accept that. But I think we have to work, as Nicolle has implored and as I implore, to make sure that everyone feels safe and respected in engaging in political debate. And that is a task that falls upon all of us, not just those of us in the parliament, not just those running for parliament, not just those reporting on politics, but everyone who decides they want to engage in the political debate should step back and take a long, hard think about what the implications are of the type of violent, aggressive and disturbing campaign behaviour we've seen.
Question: You spoke about supporting Nicolle Flint during the campaign, since then when she's come out so publicly on several occasions distressed about her treatment. What kind of support have you offered, Nicolle Flint, and have you reached out to her personally to say that you're there for her?
Simon Birmingham: So I've continued to engage with Nicolle. And I know the Prime Minister has on many occasions we have worked to try to make sure that we support her, her office, her campaign, and have done so in the full expectation that she would be our candidate again at the next election and that we would give her maximum assistance to have a better campaign experience next time. But unfortunately, we can't control the actions of the political activists, the left wing activists in this case, who decide to threaten and undermine and violate the rights of Nicolle and her staff and her volunteers to feel that they can campaign and engage safely.
Question: Should have been doing more to support her, given the low representation of women in the Liberal Party?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think that the extinction rebellion activists, the others who have continued a campaign of harassment and attacks on Nicolle should have thought about the consequences of behaviour like this.
Question: But should have you stepped up and made sure that she was supported and felt like she could continue in her role. Given there is such a lack of female representation, and how important will it be to replace her with a female candidate?
Simon Birmingham: I'm sure the best candidate will be there, but I hope very much that we do see another strong woman replace Nicole in that seat and we will do everything possible to support them and to assist them to feel that they can have confidence to go out and campaign in a safe way. But that also requires other political opponents to make the same message and to heed that message. As I said before, I know that there are, particularly on social media, activists from all sides of politics who cross the line in the way in which they engage with others in the hatred that is spewed forward in the types of personal attacks that are made. And people really should just appreciate there's a human side to that. But also, it does nothing to elevate politics in this country, does nothing to achieve your policy outcomes by simply spewing hatred towards somebody else.
Question: Do you think that her critics feel more free to indulge in more extreme behaviour because she had more conservative views, they felt more able to do that?
Simon Birmingham: I think candidates across the spectrum who go out and strongly put their views are often then the subject of increased attack from some of those who disagree with those views. Now people should tackle the policies, the views, the ideologies, argue those matters passionately. But, they shouldn't go after the person, this is a classic case of play the ball, not the individual, not the person. And I think yes, and Nicolle because of the views that she put forward became a particular target for certain Green and left activists out there who really targeted with hatred and with a sense of fear that undermined completely her sense of safety in her workplace, and her workplace as a politician and a candidate. And those people ought to take a good, long, hard look at themselves and think about what they have done and the way that they have undermined the confidence that people have to engage in politics in this country and to all of those who spew hatred and venom online, if you think that's going to help attract better people into politics then think again, because it doesn't, it makes it harder. Now, I'm sure we will find good, capable people willing to walk in Nicolle's shoes who are willing to take up the fight that she has maintained during this time. But it is a clear message to everyone. There are consequences for this behaviour and people ought to reflect on those consequences.
Question: Did you receive the same anonymous letter that Sarah Hanson-Young and Senator Wong received about historic sexual allegations? And if you did, will you be taking the Prime Minister's advice and forwarding it to police?
Simon Birmingham: No, I did not. And I have asked my office to double check. And to the best of all our knowledge, I have not received that information. But were I to receive such information, being consistent with the advice of the federal police I would certainly be forwarding and transmitting it to them. My understanding is that it was received in the Prime Minister's office yesterday and it was speedily transferred to the Australian Federal Police, who can bring appropriate independence, expertise and thoroughness to undertaking any investigation as necessary.
Question: Did any other South Australian Liberal MPs received the letter?
Simon Birmingham: Not to my knowledge.
Question: You talked about social media [inaudible] so forth, since the publication of that letter last night, there has been a lot of speculation of people putting venn diagrams together about who it may be and you're one of the people who has been mentioned in this. Should the person at the centre of these allegations come forward or should there be some sort of identifying of him to clear [inaudible]?
Simon Birmingham: Everybody is entitled to natural justice, and it's important to back the police to do their job. We backed the police to do their job in this and every other instance, and that's the right way to handle this. I don't wish to see anybody lose their rights to natural justice. I want to see the police empowered to do their job.
Question: This is the case. This is a case where tragically the woman involved is no longer with us. So it's an unresolvable as a case, but in the meantime, essentially, the cabinet is going to be slandered by the fact that people are going to be speculating about who it is. It's got to be another real complexity given the seniority of the person of who it's suppose to be. How does the government resolve this? Don't you have to actually get the Minister involved to stand aside?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I'm not sure then how how you think it would be resolved thereafter, so I think we have to respect that we have justice systems in Australia where everyone is entitled to natural justice, and that in this case, if allegations have been made, as I understand from media reports they have been, that we have to go back to the appropriate authorities, the police, to do everything they can to investigate and to their satisfaction, determine the appropriate course, forward, free of any sense of political interference or direction.
Question: So you don't think the minister in question should step aside?
Simon Birmingham: I think we should back the police to do their job.
Question: Given the pressure that the government's been under the treatment of women over the last few weeks. Isn't the departure a female MP bad timing [inaudible]?
Simon Birmingham: We would wish that Nicolle had felt safe and respected enough in her job that she could go into the next campaign and have the strength to do so, as she's shown for so long. But we will get a new good candidate for Boothby. I sincerely hope that it is a strong, thoughtful woman, of Nicole's ilk, if I can say, who will take us forward in Boothby, in a way forward that continues her good work in different areas for the people of Boothby, in those other sensitive areas that I mentioned, as well as no doubt, continue to be a champion, for safe and respectful political campaigning in all its forms.
Question: Would the party consider quota for female representation?
Simon Birmingham: We just over the last few weeks have preselected a new Senate candidate in Kerrynne Liddle, we've preselected new candidates at a state level, Mawson, Schubert and in Frome, all of them putting forward strong, capable, credible women to represent the party. I think we are seeing that our party members in their pre-selection decisions are making decisions to affect change. And I welcome that very, very much.
Question: Even without a quota?
Simon Birmingham: Party members are speaking with their votes in recent pre-selections, the vast majority of which are often in safe Liberal seats have now gone to new, strong, capable women. And that is something I welcome very, very much and encourage our party members across the country to continue to make those decisions that will affect meaningful change for the future. Thanks, everyone.
Authorised by Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham, South Australia