Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Tuesday, 23 March 2021
Michael Rowland: Let's go to Canberra, where a Coalition staffer was sacked last night after it was alleged he performed a lewd sex act in a female Liberal MPs office late yesterday. Channel Ten and The Australian newspaper reported they obtained videos and images filmed inside Parliament House involving four coalition staff members. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, whose department manages Parliament House, joins us now. Minister, good morning.
Simon Birmingham: Hello, Michael. Thanks for the opportunity.
Michael Rowland: What does it say about the culture within the government that this male staffer reportedly thought it was perfectly OK to drop his daks and pleasure himself over a female MP's desk?
Simon Birmingham: Michael, amongst a small number there is clearly disgusting and unacceptable culture and we have to weed it out and make sure that across this building, people understand it's a privilege to work here and people feel pride in working here as well. And that's why we've taken a zero tolerance approach on this matter. One employee was dismissed last night, and if others are identified as being engaged in similar activity, they'll be dismissed as well.
Michael Rowland: Well, there are three others involved in this alleged Facebook page. What's going to happen to those three other coalition staffers?
Simon Birmingham: Michael, they will have to be identified first. So we have reached out to the journalist who reported the story, asking him to extend to the whistle-blower an invitation to cooperate with the government to assist us in that regard. We will undertake whatever other investigations we can. Having acted swiftly last night where we could identify one individual and if we identify any others in similar action will be taken in relation to them. They've shown a complete disrespect for the Member of Parliament [indistinct] the Australian public-
Michael Rowland: Excuse me. It goes beyond disrespect. I mean, this is next level stuff here. What's alleged-.
Simon Birmingham: It's revolting, Michael.
Michael Rowland: It is revolting. What does it say about attitudes towards women? Again, that this male staffer reportedly thought it was OK to perform this sex act on a female MP's desk?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it says that these individuals and that indeed anybody else who thinks that anything like this or any form of harassment or bullying, let alone sexual assault, have something terribly wrong with the way they think about others they work with. I mean, the disrespect I'm talking about is not just a disrespect to the Member of Parliament, the disrespect to the Australian public. It's a disrespect to every other person they work with in this building, because I know that there are hundreds of people coming to work here today who, frankly, feel a sense of shame. And they shouldn't, they should feel a sense of pride because the vast majority of them are good, hardworking people. And it's not good enough that some undertake actions that bring down the reputation of the many. And that's why we won't just look at this as a single issue. There's got to be cultural change. There's got to be changed to practises around the way people are educated and informed in relation to, not only their responsibilities, but also understanding how they can call out anybody who's doing the wrong thing in future.
Michael Rowland: Let's go to the revelations on Four Corners last night. The prime minister has always said that the Liberal staffer allegedly who raped Brittany Higgins was sacked for a security breach. Nikola Anderson, a security guard on duty on the fateful night, told Four Corners last night there was no security breach. The alleged rapist and Brittany Higgins had clearance to be in Linda Reynolds office. What do you say to that?
Simon Birmingham: Michael, indeed a staff member is entitled to be admitted to an office by security officers. And I would in no way suggested security officer did anything wrong in her decision making of allowing them access to the office. But in relation to ministerial offices and sensitive ministerial offices, there's another level of protocols that exist and going in for non-work purposes when intoxicated out of hours constitutes absolutely a security breach managed by the ministerial office itself, which in this case resulted in the termination of that employee. And again, clearly issues that Brittany Higgins didn't at the time feel the necessary support to proceed after she spoke with federal police to a full investigation. But we very much welcome the fact that she has done that now and that we are in a position where we will give absolutely every support to that police investigation to hopefully see it succeed and succeed in prosecuting this alleged sexual assault.
Michael Rowland: Speaking of the investigations, as we know now from yesterday's revelations, the internal inquiry commissioned being conducted, rather, by the head of the Prime Minister's department Phil Gaetjens has been put on hold. He revealed that he told the prime minister personally of this on March the 9th, nine days later, the prime minister told parliament that the inquiry he had yet to get an update from Phil Gaetjens on that inquiry. Why did the prime minister feel the need to mislead parliament?
Simon Birmingham: Well no, what the prime minister did was he advised that Phil Gaetjens would be appearing before Senate estimates to questions about the inquiry. Once asked to do it, Phil Gaetjens was undertaking it at arm's length from the prime minister. Phil Gaetjens made the decision after talking to the police commissioner that he shouldn't be doing anything that could compromise the success of the police investigation, which we all want to see successfully investigate and prosecute the alleged offender of Brittany Higgins.
Michael Rowland: But it goes to what Phil Gaetjens said hr told estimates that he personally told the prime minister that the enquiry was put on hold. The prime minister told parliament nine days later, after getting that information from Phil Gaetjens, that he hadn't received an update. The two stories don't gel.
Simon Birmingham: No, no. The Prime Minister said that Phil Gaetjens would be estimates to answer questions-.
Michael Rowland: But he also said he hadn't received an update it just goes to what he was said to have been told by Phil Gaetjens.
Simon Birmingham: Phil Gaetjens suspended this inquiry on the advice and following discussions with the police commissioner to make sure that nothing he was doing, nothing that was happening in relation to other investigations in this matter could compromise the paramount importance of actually getting a successful investigation and prosecution of an alleged rapist. And that is the number one objective in relation to the individual aspects of the case. More broadly, the objective is to achieve cultural change and best practise across this building. And that's what Kate Jenkins, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, is helping us to do, working across party lines. And that's going to be a crucial piece of work to make sure that we're not having any of these conversations in future-
Michael Rowland: No one wants these conversations. What's it going to take? The Prime Minister quite rightly described the revelation on Channel 10 last night as sickening and disgusting. The Minister for Women, Marise Payne, said they were beyond appalling. Words, words, words, words, words, we keep hearing words. What is it going to take to change this completely broken Parliament House culture?
Simon Birmingham: Well firstly, Michael, I hope that anybody is doing the wrong thing can say that it won't be tolerated by virtue of the fact that somebody was sacked last night and others will be sacked if they can be identified. Secondly, we will have to put in place the types of practises that many large organisations do, mandatory workplace training around the policies and processes that are in place so that people have the confidence and the support to call out anything they see that's wrong to make sure it's properly investigated. These are the things not only that Kate Jenkins is looking at as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner in her sweeping investigation. But we are also looking at what interim measures we can be put in place, pending Kate’s finalisation of her work to make sure that people see change. And as I said before, the vast many good people who come to work in this building can feel pride not shame in doing so and that we can attract the best and brightest as I’m sure all Australians want to see our parliament do.
Michael Rowland: Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us for News Breakfast this morning.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Michael.