Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Tuesday, 23 March 2021
Peter Stefanovic: Let's go to Canberra now. Joining us live is Finance Minister Simon Birmingham. So, Minister, thanks for your time this morning. So one person has been sacked, so there's three more to come, right?
Simon Birmingham: Subject to being able to identify, out of the images. Yes. The government has no tolerance for this appalling, disgusting behaviour that's taken place. We acted as quickly as we could last night when we were in a position to identify one individual. We will do all the investigations we possibly can to identify any others. And the message there is this will not be tolerated. The culture, the attitudes that lead to this have to change. And we are setting a standard that I hope will resonate with current and future staff for years to come.
Peter Stefanovic: Were you aware that the meditation room was being used as a place for staff and parliamentarians to have sex?
Simon Birmingham: You know there have been stories about that room for decades, most of which I've usually treated as a bad joke. But it seems, sadly, that it is far, far worse than that in terms of what to what some of what is alleged to have occurred. And again, anybody who has any information or to make sure they bring it forward. I have reached out to the journalists who followed this story, asking him to convey to the whistle-blower that the government would welcome the opportunity to talk to that individual and to understand precisely the allegations that have been made so that appropriate action can be taken.
Peter Stefanovic: See, this is the problem, isn't it? Minister, I mean, people were aware of these kinds of things, yet nothing was done about it.
Simon Birmingham: I think what we have been doing and you're right, that we have to make sure short term action, as is occurring in relation to the dismissal of staff and action in relation to anybody who's done the wrong thing in showing a complete and utter contempt and disrespect for the parliament and the workplace and the Australian people, but also long term change, which is the work that we've asked the Sex Discrimination Commissioner to do, looking entirely at parliamentary workplaces and practises. And there are hundreds of people coming to this building this morning who are going to be feeling a sense of shame in doing so. Staff, the vast majority of whom are hardworking, decent people who don't deserve to have their reputations smeared by those doing the wrong thing. That's one of the main most important drivers to stamp this out so that people feel safe in the workplace and so that we can attract the best and brightest to come here, as all Australians should want.
Peter Stefanovic: As a government leader are you embarrassed about it?
Simon Birmingham: It's embarrassing. It's sickening. It's appalling. And it's not to be tolerated. And that's the stance we are very clearly taking.
Peter Stefanovic: How exactly with sex workers sun in Parliament House?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I don't know. I mean, people can be signed in as visitors or guests to this building. Now there is little but the allegations that have been made by way of detail that surround that part of these claims. Other parts of these claims, of course, have been accompanied by some images or pictures. That's why we've reached out to the whistle-blower and that's why we want anybody to cooperate with investigations that are undertaken to make sure that any of this wrongdoing is stamped out.
Peter Stefanovic: Just onto these allegations that were aired on Four Corners last night. I just want to know, how is it that the security guard who first saw Britt Higgins hadn't been interviewed for two years?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it's a matter really for the federal police. Obviously, at the initial stages after the federal police met with Brittany in the days and weeks following the incident, a decision was made not at that stage to proceed with an investigation. More recently, police have received a formal statement from Brittany Higgins and have proceeded now with a full investigation. And I understand they have reached out to that security guard and no doubt others who they will be interviewing as part of an investigation that the government will give full cooperation to and that we all hope can be a successful investigation that leads to a prosecution of an alleged rapist.
Peter Stefanovic: She also denies there was a security breach. So how was it that the man who came in with Britt Higgins and allegedly raped her was sacked for a security breach?
Simon Birmingham: The security guard didn't do anything wrong in terms of admitting staff who had passes into an office. But the staff, indeed, according to appropriate standards for a secure office environment, were doing the wrong thing by being in the intoxicated, after hours, for non-work related matters. And so it wasn't-.
Peter Stefanovic: But then that would, that could apply to a lot of people, right?
Simon Birmingham: Well, this is why understanding and knowing these things and changing the culture in relation to any such practices is important and why is I'm making it very clear and everyone should be on notice. It's a zero tolerance approach taken by the government to this type of wrongdoing. Now, obviously, what actually occurred, according to the allegations that Brittany Higgins's made, goes to another level of illegality and unacceptability. And that's what we want to see a successful prosecution occur there. But as I said before, more broadly, the work of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins to ensure this building has the nation's leading practises in how to prevent bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault, inappropriate conduct, that it has all appropriate standards so that people feel supported to report and to bring forward incidents of wrongdoing and to know that they will be rectified and addressed. These are all things that we take incredibly seriously and that I am determined to make sure that once Kate reports that we have effective change on and to implement whatever we can in the interim to address any of these matters.
Peter Stefanovic: Last week, Minister, the prime minister didn't disclose that the investigation into his office over Britt Higgins rape allegations had been suspended. Has he misled parliament?
Simon Birmingham: No. The prime minister directed questions to be sent to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. To Phil Gaetjens his secretary, who the prime minister had asked to conduct this review completely at arm's length of the prime minister. He wanted to make sure it was independently done and undertaken. And so it was appropriate that it was Mr Gaetjens who provided an update to the parliament in relation to the discussions that he had had with the federal police commissioner, who asked Mr Gaetjens to reconsider parts of his review such that they in no way impeded or compromised the police investigation.
Peter Stefanovic: But Mr Gaetjensn, sorry to interrupt, but Mr Gaetjens says that he told Mr Morrison and his office so either someone is lying or at least covering up some tracks here?
Simon Birmingham: No, the Prime Minister said Mr Gaetjens would be appearing at Senate estimates, which is quite unusual indeed, unprecedented almost for a secretary of that department to do so, and that he would be appearing to address these questions. It was appropriate that was Mr Gaetjens, who spelt out very clearly the conversations he'd had with the police commissioner, the reason he was suspending parts of his investigation. Those reasons, I think Australians would understand that in no way do we want any other work that's taking place around the allegations in the matters that have occurred to compromise the potential success of a police prosecution of a rapist, which is a very crucial response in relation to the allegations and certainly not the only one and it's why sweeping cultural changes are necessary. And the work of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner is so crucial there. But we certainly wouldn't want to get in the way of that police investigation.
Peter Stefanovic: Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, we're out of time, but appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for joining us.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.
Authorised by Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham, South Australia.