Topic: Allegations in the Senate; Katy Gallagher has questions to answer; Land lease for Russian embassy terminated;
Friday, 16 June 2023
Matt Doran: Well, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate is South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham. He joins me now in the studio. Senator, welcome back to Afternoon Briefing.
Simon Birmingham: Hello, Matt. Good to be with you.
Matt Doran: I want to start with what former Senator Amanda Stoker has revealed late yesterday about this allegation against Senator Van. Had you heard anything along these lines while Senator Stoker was still a member of parliament?
Simon Birmingham: No, Matt. The first I heard of those allegations was yesterday when Amanda’s name was mentioned in discussions with Peter Dutton.
Matt Doran: How concerning is it that this sort of behaviour has allegedly been going on for some time?
Simon Birmingham: Well, obviously the fact that these allegations have been made is concerning. What Peter Dutton has done quite rightly is to encourage anybody with concerns to report them to the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service, a new service that we established late in the life of the previous Parliament in response to Kate Jenkins’ work. And I was very pleased to play a role in helping with the establishment of that service. And it’s important to have that type of independent arm’s length body that can provide support but also lead people through independent private investigations of any issues that occur.
Matt Doran: Have any other people raised concerns about Senator Van’s behaviour to you?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s well known that that he moved offices a couple of years back, and at that stage the leader of the Greens in the Senate had come to me as the then leader of the government in the Senate, as she also went to the Senate president. And at that point she raised concerns that Senator Thorpe had made about what could best be described as undue proximity from Senator Van, that she felt he was paying her excessive attention in some way through walking down corridors with her and being with her more than she felt was normal or appropriate. Those concerns were put to Senator Van. He denied any wrongdoing, but the Greens sought two things at that time. One was that he agreed to keep a sense of distance. The other was that he moved from the office next door to Senator Thorpe to another office in the building, and both of those things were actioned and actioned to the satisfaction of the Greens leadership at the time.
Matt Doran: Is it enough to simply move someone like Senator Van to a different part of the building, considering what Senator Thorpe had been alleging at the time?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I want to be clear here, Matthew. There were no allegations of sexual assault made and the allegations were precisely, as I just described them, in terms of the proximity and excessive attention, not in a physical way, but in terms of his presence around her. And so that is what we responded to at the time. The Greens specified the action that they wanted and that action was taken and at that stage they were seeking for it to be a private matter, not for attention to be brought to it. And so we worked cooperatively to ensure that was done and that Senator Thorpe could feel more comfortable in her workplace.
Matt Doran: Was the Prime Minister Scott Morrison informed of what happened?
Simon Birmingham: His office was made aware, but it was something handled through the Senate leadership at the time.
Matt Doran: So his office was made aware, but he personally wasn’t told?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I can’t speak for how his office necessarily conveyed the information, but at the time it was handled through the Senate leadership and done in a manner that was very cooperative with Senator Waters as the Greens leader in the Senate and all participants seeking to ensure that that concerns that were raised, that didn’t have allegations, the nature of which have been aired in the last couple of days, but those concerns at that time were taken seriously and addressed to the satisfaction of all parties at that time.
Matt Doran: Would it not be incumbent on you as the leader of the government in the Senate, to have that discussion personally with the Prime Minister?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I had the discussion personally with Senator Van in terms of getting him to, at that stage, agree to move his office. At that stage, agree to the Greens’ request that he keeps some distance from Senator Thorpe and to – whilst he denied any wrongdoing – to understand the importance in terms of the way he conducted himself in this place. And it’s deeply disappointing that apparently other allegations, as we now know, have surfaced since.
Matt Doran: But back to my question, is it not incumbent on you to mention that to the leader of your party and the leader of the country that such a claim at the time had been made against a member of his own team?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Matthew, again, it was not a claim, the likes of which we’ve heard in the last couple of days. It was put in a very different way at the time.
Matt Doran: But still serious enough for action to have been taken. In terms of the moving of the office.
Simon Birmingham: Serious enough in the sense that I wanted to ensure that Senator Thorpe felt comfortable in her workplace, as I would any other senator. And so we actioned the request of the Greens, notwithstanding the fact that Senator Van was very emphatic then, as indeed he remains now, that there was no wrongdoing. But I would urge anybody, be it Senator Thorpe, former Senator Stoker or anybody else, to use the types of processes that we have put in place that enable for thorough, independent investigation of these sorts of matters to be undertaken.
Matt Doran: Peter Dutton has said that David Van should resign from Parliament and get the help he needs. Is that a sentiment that you adhere to?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think there are two important points. One is that whilst this is a difficult issue for many people and so anybody who feels affected by these sorts of events should get help and that includes David Van. In terms of his place in the Parliament it’s entirely accurate that he should be reflecting upon his place here and obviously that reflection should include the option of resigning.
Matt Doran: So, should include the option of it. But do you specifically think he should resign?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think there’s every reason for him to think that would be for the best. And clearly the Liberal Party would prefer to have a participating Liberal senator in our team, which is what he was elected as. But Peter took the right and principled step yesterday, having learnt of additional issues and allegations to say that he would no longer sit in the Liberal Party. So if he does come back here, he will be sitting as an independent in the Senate.
Matt Doran: Just one final question on this matter before we move on. Do you think that the line of questioning that the Coalition has taken this week trying to grill the finance minister, Katy Gallagher, on what she knew, when she knew it, about Brittany Higgins rape allegation in early 2021 was triggering and has been dredging up this sort of concern, particularly from someone like Senator Thorpe, who had not spoken out until she was clearly moved to do so based on what she was hearing around her. Does the Coalition have to take some responsibility for the environment that’s been created in this building this week?
Simon Birmingham: Matt, I would prefer that these issues had never been politicised in the first place, and if they had not been politicised in the first place, then the line of questioning undertaken this week would not have been necessary because there would have been no suggestion that Senator Gallagher had misled the Senate. But there was a very clear, not only suggestion, but evidence indicating that she had misled the Senate that when she claimed back in 2021 to have had no knowledge of matters. It’s subsequently been revealed that she did have knowledge. Even the statements she made to the Senate this week where she said she did absolutely nothing with the information she received have been contradicted by public evidence indicating that she did indeed have, undertake responses or provide questions or the like with that information. So, I would prefer that we had not been in this position, but we were in a position and it is important that the Senate seeks to ensure that if it has been wilfully misled by a senator, particularly by a minister, that it actually upholds its standards. And that’s what we’ve been seeking to do this week.
Matt Doran: We could devote an entire program to this very issue. But I do want to ask you about other matters in the Senate this week, and specifically the Coalition’s very quick backing of the legislation that was rushed into Parliament to stop the construction of a new Russian embassy just a stone’s throw from where we are. Why was the Coalition so happy to wave that through so quickly?
Simon Birmingham: This is an issue that has transgressed governments and parliaments in that sense. So as government before the last election, we were working through means to try to bring to an end Russia’s lease on that site. There are genuine security concerns for the nation in relation to that site and its locality and the influence that Russia, which is a state, has been identified in many different cyber-attacks and other security breaches could undertake from a site such as that. So whilst there had been legal impediments to some of the efforts that had been previously put in place, we were willing to give support to the government and to make sure it was done swiftly. Such that these efforts can draw a line in the sand there and ensure that the piece of land – which if we were to have a window on that side of the studio, you could basically see it from where we are sitting – is not an appropriate one for Russia’s embassy.
Matt Doran: Well, just briefly, that land is next door to where the current Chinese embassy is. Should there be discussion around the use, the ongoing use of that site, given its proximity to Parliament House as well?
Simon Birmingham: There is some little extra buffer in distance there. And of course, you’re not talking about a newly built location and site with some of the some of the assets there. But I have no doubt that that our security services will provide all appropriate advice to the government of the day and that we will take all precautions as necessary in terms of the protection of information within this building and the national security of Australia.
Matt Doran: Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Matt. My pleasure.