Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Friday, 5 March 2021
Simon Birmingham: Thank you. The events and commentary of the last few weeks have been deeply distressing and confronting for many people right across Australia. They have been especially distressing and confronting or victims of harassment, bullying, sexual abuse around Australians, particularly for those who may have been confronted with instances of bullying, sexual harassment or sexual assault within parliamentary workplaces. They've also been a distressing and confronting time for the loved ones, the victims, for their friends and family, and also for the many innocent individuals who work alongside those who have faced bullying or harassment or sexual assault in their lives.
The fact is that the Parliament of Australia should set the standard for the nation. The Parliament of Australia should set the example for others to follow. The Parliament of Australia should reflect best practise in the prevention of and response to any instances of bullying, sexual harassment or sexual assault. That's why the Prime Minister agreed a couple of weeks ago to establish an independent review to look at systemic issues as to how the parliament can best set that example. The Prime Minister asked me to work across party lines to develop a review that would be truly at arm's length of government and that would be truly independent and would look at just how we do best set that example to ensure that in our workplaces, everything that can be done to prevent bullying, sexual harassment or sexual assault is done. And that where those instances do occur in the future, that all of the necessary supports are in place to help victims and to ensure that they have the confidence to report and to go through all processes to ensure that their concerns are addressed to their satisfaction.
Over the last couple of weeks I've consulted extensively with both current and former staff of Members of Parliament, with the Presiding Officers of the Parliament, with experts in matters of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and with representatives from the Opposition, the Greens, other minor parties and Independent Members of Parliament and Senators. I thank all of those who have given their time, their thoughts and who have done so free of partisan politics, but all with the shared intent and desire to make sure that this review achieves meaningful change, that this review can be open, honest in its assessment, and can provide for a type of workplace in all of our parliamentary environments that does set that positive example for the nation.
Today, I announce that Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, will lead this review into Parliamentary workplaces. Kate Jenkins has served with distinction as Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner since 2016, having previously held a similar role in the state of Victoria. I know that she will continue as Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner to provide leadership for many Australians in the years to come. Kate, in her time in the office, has undertaken the landmark national report Respect@Work as well as undertaking projects of similar nature for other national institutions and organisations, as we are now asking her to do for the Parliament.
We have developed clear terms of reference that will give Kate every capability to hear the experiences of former and current parliamentary staff, former and current parliamentarians, those who have worked in the parliament and in hearing those experiences to consider how to change the culture, how to change the practises, and how do we ensure that in the future we do have the best possible environment for prevention and response to those instances. Kate will report by November of this year and will provide a public update of her work in July of this year. These timelines have been developed in consultation with Commissioner Jenkins and through consultation with all of the involved parties. Our desire is that this is a long enough time for it to be a thorough and comprehensive piece of work, but also to get a response back this year such that we can then act on the recommendations to provide the positive examples for the future.
It is so important to get this work done and to get it done properly. It's important for the victims of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault. It's important for their loved ones. It is also important for the many innocent bystanders who have found themselves in workplaces or environments that are under question or under a cloud at present. I've worked in the Australian Parliament for a short period of time as a staffer many years ago and for a longer period of time as a senator and the vast majority of the thousands of staff and hundreds of Members of Parliament that I've worked alongside of are there for all of the best reasons in the world. They seek to make a difference to our nation. They seek to provide leadership to our country. We want the best people to come and serve in our Parliament and to come and work alongside those of us who serve in our Parliament. And this review will be a crucial step to making sure that everyone can and should have the confidence that when doing so, they will be doing so in a safe and a respectful workplace.
Journalist: Will, the review look specifically at the Britney Higgins case and the allegations against Christian Porter and has the government failed to set the standard?
Simon Birmingham: So this review will be able to hear examples and indeed take submissions from any former Members of Parliament staff or those who have worked within the Parliament. And it's crucial that it does. And here those experiences. It is not, though, an investigative review and I think that is important to make clear. It follows the type of terms of reference that the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Sex Discrimination Commissioner used in the conduct of their work for the Respect@Work inquiry and the terms of reference, have involved consultation with former staff, including some of those who have been in the media in recent days and weeks. And I thank them very much for their input into these processes.
This review is about achieving systemic change. And so, yes, the experiences of people will be crucial to informing that systemic change. And the review will also have clear protocols and practises put in place such that if people are sharing experiences or stories of harassment or assault and where they want to have those issues resolved through appropriate legal channels or other appropriate agencies, the support will be put in place to assist them to do so. One of the compelling reasons for choosing Commissioner Jenkins and to undertake this work was not just her independence and experience, but also the structures and the systems that the Australian Human Rights Commission can bring to the conduct of this review, thereby giving absolute confidence to participants that they can bring forward their stories and their experiences with complete confidence that they will be shared in a confidential manner, that they can share all of those details as is appropriate, and support structures will be there to refer them to appropriate authorities and to offer them any counselling, trauma assistance or otherwise that is necessary.
Journalist: Will the full report and its findings be made public immediately?
Simon Birmingham: So the report and its findings will be made public, obviously Commissioner Jenkins and the Human Rights Commission will ensure that confidentiality is respected in terms of the content of that report as well.
Journalist: Why shouldn't the Minister Reynolds resign?
Simon Birmingham: Minister Reynolds, I understand, has made very clear that she's sorry for the statements that were reportedly made and she will be conveying that, I understand, to Miss Higgins as well.
Journalist: Should she make that apology public?
Simon Birmingham: Well, she should make that apology to the satisfaction of Miss Higgins.
Journalist: Senator, did you personally know or have you personally met the woman who's accused Mr Porter of those allegations?
Simon Birmingham: I understand that I had met her in 2010 at a book launch. I remember the book launch. I don't remember any particular conversations at the time. And I'm not aware of any subsequent engagement meeting or otherwise with her, I'm only aware of that, by virtue of the tweet where I congratulated her for the work that she had done at that book launch.
Simon Birmingham: Is it tenable for Christian Porter to remain Attorney General long term?
Simon Birmingham: Yes, it is important that in Australia we uphold the rule of law and we do so in a manner where the rule of law applies equally to everybody. That also involves maintenance of the presumption of innocence and improper practises and scrutiny that are entailed in investigations, in the conduct of the law.
Journalist: Can you understand how there would be serious clouds of both Christian Porter and Linda Reynolds in light of recent events?
Simon Birmingham: Look, it's an unfortunate part of public life that allegations, speculation can linger in that regard. But I think Australians are also fair minded and that they do expect that all individuals should have the right to the presumption of innocence and the right to be able to have their case heard. These claims in relation to the Attorney General that date back to 1988 had had engagement with different independent, impartial investigative bodies in police services. They're still subject, of course, of coronial processes here in South Australia. And all of those independent processes should be allowed to do their job with full independence without political interference.
Journalist: Will the Government support the family's wishes for an independent inquiry into this woman's death?
Simon Birmingham: Well, that is precisely what is happening here in South Australia at present. That's what South Australian police and the South Australian coroner will do, free of political interference and with the independence guaranteed under their legal frameworks.
Journalist: Are you worried that it will be difficult for the Liberal Party to attract women, given all the issues that have come to light in the last few weeks?
Simon Birmingham: I worry as I said in my concluding remarks that the way in which these events have been promoted over recent weeks will deter good people from offering themselves for parliamentary services or from wanting to work in our parliament. And that's why our parliament, Australia's parliament, should and must set the example in terms of providing the best possible policies to prevent harassment, sexual harassment, bullying, sexual assault, and to ensure we respond to it in the best and most possible and effective ways where it does occur. And if we can set that example and be an exemplar for the nation, then hopefully that can give people the confidence to step forward and to work in our parliament in whatever way they see fit so that we can continue to attract good, capable, well-meaning individuals, as are the vast majority of those who I've had the privilege of serving alongside of through my time.
Journalist: If the government really wants to set a good example, why is Linda Reynolds not stepping down, calling someone who's, you know, being the subject of a horrific, rape allegation? She's called her a lying cow. How is that setting a good example if Linda Reynolds is still in that position?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it's for Linda to resolve that apology to the satisfaction of Miss Higgins and for Linda and all arms of government to do as we've committed, as we have always been willing to do, and that is to cooperate fully with police investigations into the alleged rape and assault of Brittany Higgins. It was always Linda's willingness and intent to cooperate fully and I know it continues to be the case.
Journalist: Is it against the rule of law to hold a proper independent inquiry into allegations against Christian Porter?
Simon Birmingham: We have independent processes. Police in Australia are independent, coronial investigatory bodies are independent, our courts are independent and they operate independent ways with all of the appropriate safeguards as well that a good judicial system needs and has.
Journalist: Is the Finance Department paying for Brittany Higgins legal fees?
Simon Birmingham: I'm not aware of having received a request in relation to contributing to legal fees at this time, but if I do, then we would assess that in accordance with all the standard protocols.
Journalist: And what about Minister Reynolds and Christian Porter? Any financial assistance with the legal positions?
Simon Birmingham: I'm not aware in terms of details there, but not to my knowledge.
Journalist: Just on submarines. I'll be really quick, does Linda Reynolds being on leave, does that affect the timeline of the future submarines contract here in SA?
Simon Birmingham: No, work is definitely continuing. And since, Mr Pommellet, Naval Group's Global CEO was in Adelaide last week, I've had discussions with the acting defence minister and the secretary of the Defence Department. And I know that work continues at pace to make sure that there are thorough responses and analysis of the information provided during Mr. Pommellet's visit and subsequently.