Topic(s): Grace Tame & Brittany Higgins National Press Club speech; Federal Integrity Commission; Religious Discrimination Bill

Leigh Sales:  To discuss everything that was going on in Canberra today, we spoke to Senator Simon Birmingham. He’s the Finance Minister and was also part of the taskforce overseeing the response to Kate Jenkins’ enquiry. Senator, if we can start with today’s National Press Club address by Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins, I saw that you attended. I’m just wondering if you have any reflections on why so few men were in the room, given that sexual abuse and sexual harassment overwhelmingly are men’s problems.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Lee. I thought it was a very powerful presentation today. I won’t say that I agreed with every word there, but I thought it was a very powerful presentation by Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame. And I did note a question from one of the female journalists who was noting that there was only one male journalist presenting a question and the room overwhelmingly was comprised of women. And I think that is an important reflection. One of the things I took out of what Grace Tame highlighted was that in her advocacy on child abuse in particular, we shouldn’t be thinking, we cannot just think about child abuse against young girls. We have to recognise child abuse against young boys as well and that-


Leigh Sales: With these issues, though. Sorry to interrupt, but with these issues, I mean, it’s men who need to hear these messages. Not, not women. I’m just wondering if you’ve got any thoughts as to why so few of your male colleagues were actually there?


Simon Birmingham: I think the point you make is very clear. I have found these engagements that I’ve undertaken in attending today in the engagements I’ve had with various people over the last year to be a learning experience to help frame my views. And I really do encourage people to listen. And so you won’t agree with everything all of the time, but listen, you tune in. It will help to change the culture which is at the heart of whether it is the type of sexual abuse that Grace Tame is talking about, or, of course, the type of gendered discrimination, workplace violence, bullying that is at the heart of what Brittany Higgins and others have spoken about. That takes us all to understand and to show leadership in changing that culture.


Leigh Sales: If we can whip through a few other subjects on the likelihood of a federal corruption watchdog, the Morrison government promised a something like that in this term of government for Australia. You’ve had plenty of time to negotiate on that and deliver. And it seems highly unlikely that it will happen now in that time frame. Isn’t the only conclusion to be drawn that the government simply does not want a federal integrity body scrutinising it?


Simon Birmingham: No, it’s not. I’m happy to give this guarantee that if we had clear parliamentary passage for the 300 plus pages of legislation that has been developed as part of the consultation process for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, then it would sail through the parliament-


Leigh Sales: No, but it’s your job to come up with legislation that people can vote for and you haven’t.


Simon Birmingham: Look, we have come up with legislation that responds to the consultations we’ve undertaken that we think provides the right type of integrity commission to investigate corruption, to hold public officials to account, but not to be a star chamber and not to be the type of vehicle that is used for political purposes or for simply destroying reputations, but to be a true fighter of corruption. As I said, we have developed that model. It is there. The Labor Party’s alternative is not a developed model that doesn’t have any legislation or the like. We’ve got that. And if the Labor Party wanted to support our legislation, then the Commonwealth Integrity Commission would come into being with a budget that we outlined in the last two budgets to support its establishment.


Leigh Sales: The Prime Minister once called the push for a National Integrity Commission a fringe issue. That’s all anybody really needs to know isn’t it about whether this government really wants to subject itself to further accountability, scrutiny and transparency?


Simon Birmingham: Well, there are a range of agencies that already tackle issues of corruption, but the model we have designed has gone through rounds of consultation is detailed legislation, has got budget allocated to it and all it needs is to give the government the confidence that that model could pass through the Senate and it would come in to being.


Leigh Sales: On the religious freedom bill. The government’s agreed that schools will not be allowed to exclude staff and students for being gay, but that doesn’t extend to transgender staff and students. Why is that?


Simon Birmingham: Leigh, I think the first thing that’s really important to acknowledge here is we are talking about bills that seek to reduce discrimination in Australia. So the religious discrimination bill is about making sure that whether you are a Sikh or a Hindu, and whether you’re a person of Muslim faith, of Jewish or Christian faith or of no faith, you can’t be discriminated against when you go to rent a house or to engage in other commercial activities on the basis of your faith. That’s an important-


Leigh Sales: But why would you limit discrimination against gays but not transgender people?


Simon Birmingham: -and on the other parts that have now become part of this debate. Importantly, we’re also talking about removing exemptions that exist in the current Sex Discrimination Act. The important question you’ve asked there is that it would remove exemptions for children to be expelled on the basis of their sexual orientation. That’s an important removal. I also want to see action in relation to questions of trans students. But when it comes to the issue of gender identity, then on that front, there are other complex interplays when you’re dealing with, for example, same sex schools and what rights they have. So the commitment we’ve given is that there would be an Australian Law Reform Commission review into how we fix those provisions to balance the needs of same sex schools while making sure we address those issues for trans students because those students are no lesser than any other child, and we must make sure we look out for them too.


Leigh Sales: Can I pick up on a couple of things there, then? So if this bill gets through as it is, would an all-boys school be allowed to expel a student who wanted to wear a skirt and asked to be treated as a girl?


Simon Birmingham: Well Leigh, I think in practical terms, you see schools deal with these issues far before you get to expulsion in terms of working closely with families, with students, you know, I trust a far more caring and effective way. But if this bill gets through, what we will have is, I hope, the quickest possible work done by the Australian Law Reform Commission to identify how we can make sure those current exemptions that exist to the Sex Discrimination Act that were put in place by the previous Labor government are fixed in a way to address the types of circumstances you put.


Leigh Sales: I notice you didn’t quite answer that question, though. So that means under this bill that they could actually do something like that?


Simon Birmingham: Well Leigh, under existing law, under law put in place by the previous Labor government. So we are talking about means to try to fix those laws and address them.


Leigh Sales: You said also that you would like to see more protection for trans students. Are you personally comfortable for voting for this bill? As it stands, Labor’s going to move amendments to propose some protections for trans people in the Senate. Would you, for example, be in favour of voting for those?


Simon Birmingham: Leigh, what I want to see is that the bill passes in a manner where it reduces the potential for discrimination, and I can see that we are on a pathway that will reduce potential for discrimination against gay and lesbian students, that will reduce potential for discrimination against people of faith or people not of faith on the grounds of their faith, and give them equality in terms of treatment of race, age, gender, sexual orientation or the like. And indeed, then in relation to some of those technically challenging questions when you’re trying to deal with the same sex schools rights in terms of its actual actions versus those of trans students, that there would be within 12 months the work done to come up with the legal framework as to how we get that right without unintended consequences.


Leigh Sales: Senator Birmingham, thank you.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Lee. My pleasure.


Leigh Sales: And just a clarification, the government’s amendments relate only to gay students, not teachers.