Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Tuesday, 30 November 2021
David Marchese: We're going to get some more reaction now from Simon Birmingham he's the Finance Minister and his department is actually responsible for people working in parliament. He joins me now. Minister, welcome to Hack.
Simon Birmingham: Hello, Dave. Good to be with you.
David Marchese: This review's found that parliament is riddled with bullying, sexual harassment and assault. The prime minister has called it appalling and disturbing. Your departments responsible for parliamentary employees. What do you think?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it does highlight some practises in behaviour that go back a long period of time and clearly are thoroughly unacceptable and that do warrant change. And I'm very pleased that the report we have from the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, provides a clear roadmap for change, building upon a number of things that we've done already this year in response to some of the highly distressing allegations that we've seen come out at the start of the year that prompted this review, but we haven't waited for the review. We've acted in terms of putting in place better support structures, better training arrangements and crucially, better arrangements for the receipt and independent handling of complaints and more transparency around the outcomes of those complaints. And now we're going to take all of that work even further.
David Marchese: So we'll get to that in a minute. But the prime minister said that he wished he found these findings more surprising. And I'm just wondering, did you find them surprising?
Simon Birmingham: I don't know that I found them surprising, given all that has come to light during the course of the year. But I found them deeply depressing. And I hope, first and foremost that for the many, many good people who work in the nation's parliament. Staffers, be they liberal or labor, green or national, independent, whatever background they may be, they come to this place with a sense of pride that they've got a job working in the nation's parliament, and they should be proud of the exceptional hard work that so many of them do. And we shouldn't allow this sort of behaviour to be a permanent stain or blight on the many good people who work here. We've got to make sure we fix it, that we change that culture and have the practises to drive that cultural change and so that everybody cannot just come here with pride in their job, but leave here with their pride intact.
David Marchese: Yeah, but I'm just seeing like a statistic like this, 26 per cent of people sexually harassed were harassed by a parliamentarian. That's an MP. That's a potential colleague or former colleague. It clearly shows that this is a problem at the top. And also as an MP yourself, you surely are very disturbed by that?
Simon Birmingham: Well I am, Dave. And one of the very important parts of the reforms we put in place during the course of the year was to make sure there was a mechanism where if an MP was found to be at fault, that could be made public and more transparent than has been the case previously-
David Marchese: We've only got- sorry Minister. We've only got 11 per cent of staff, though, who've experienced sexual harassment reporting it. And I know you're talking about making changes to the reporting mechanism, but clearly there's so much more that has to happen beyond that. There's a part of the report that says from the get go, there's no incentive to actually report because it's not going to change and it's probably actually going to make it worse. This is a feeling that's deeply entrenched inside Parliament House, and you're going to have to figure out a way to address it. What are you going to do?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Dave, know there's a number of things that we have to do. You've got to take the cultural changes to stop it at the start because you don't want the behaviour happening in the first place. But part of that is clearly also to ensure that that people know if it happens, there are thorough independent processes in place that people can take a complaint to, to lift the proportion of those who do complain so that they have confidence in the independence and the integrity of the complaints process. And that those who may do the wrong thing know that there will be consequences from those complaint processes. And that's in part what we've managed to build during the course of this year. But Kate Jenkins' work provides a very strong roadmap for us to take that even further.
David Marchese: I've heard, you know, Parliament being compared to other workplaces. And, you know, Kate Jenkins did make it pretty clear this is not another workplace. This is the federal parliament of Australia, and there are so many people listening who are deeply, deeply upset by what they're reading and hearing today. The review makes 28 recommendations. Is the government going to implement all of them?
Simon Birmingham: We are going to work with other parties to make sure that we respond positively to all of them.
David Marchese: What does that mean? Respond positively is that implementing all of them?
Simon Birmingham: They're not all recommendations for the government, so they do require us to work across party lines. What we did in establishing this review was I sat down with the opposition, the Labor Party, the Greens, other minor parties and independents, as well as staff, current and former, to agree the reviewer, to agree the terms of reference, to agree the timeline for reporting and all of those different elements. We've worked with those other parties on some of the reforms I've spoken about during the course of this year. Now I want to make sure we bring everybody back to the table to act on all of these recommendations. That is certainly the government's intention and we want to make sure we get everybody's support in doing so.
David Marchese: Because as we know, this whole review was sparked by Brittany Higgins allegations of sexual assault in the parliament, but it took the prime minister months to even organise a meeting with Brittany Higgins. Why should Australians have any confidence that the government is going to act on this?
Simon Birmingham: Because we have acted during the course of this year? As I've outlined during this interview, Dave, that we have put in place new independent structures, new training arrangements, all of them with transparency measures attached to them that will ensure Australians can see whether their MP or senator has actually undertaken the required training in relation to workplace practises that they will see ultimately the outcomes of investigations into workplace harassment or bullying if action isn't taken in accordance with what's recommended and required. So we've taken those steps already. We're going to now build on those by working collaboratively with all the rest of the Parliament and all the other political parties to make sure that the road map Kate Jenkins has given us today is one we deliver upon.
David Marchese: Alright, Minister, thank you very much for your time.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Dave.