Topic(s): Statement of Acknowledgement – Jenkins Report; Religious Discrimination Bill; Commonwealth Integrity Commission; Economy

Patricia Karvelas: Federal Parliament will today deliver a Statement of Acknowledgement to the victims of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault that have occurred throughout the building. The statement will mark a brief return of parliament before the country heads to an election, which is due by May. But former staffers including Brittany Higgins, who alleges she was raped in a minister’s office, say they haven’t been invited to attend the event. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has led the government’s response to the landmark Jenkins Report into the toxic workplace culture, which found the problems and misconduct have stretched back years. He joins me now in the breakfast studio in person. It’s been a long time to be in person. Simon Birmingham, welcome.


Simon Birmingham: It has. Good morning, Patricia. It’s good to be with you in person and good to be speaking with you in the morning.


Patricia Karvelas: In the morning, now. Now, the Jenkins Report found that one in three parliamentary staffers who are interviewed have been sexually harassed or even worse. Why is today’s statement just an acknowledgement to all these young women and not a full blown apology?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, today’s statement and I’ll let the statement stand for itself once it’s delivered, but today’s statement will be provided in accordance with the recommendations of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ report. It’s one of a number of actions that are being taken in that regard, so her first recommendation was that we provide this acknowledgement. The report was received in the last sitting week of 2021, and here we are on the first day of sittings in 2022, making sure that public acknowledgement occurs in both chambers. In addition to that, the government will be introducing legislation this week to act on other recommendations in Commissioner Jenkins’ report recommendations to ensure that various workplace and anti-discrimination laws explicitly apply to members of Parliament staff as well. We’ve also be introducing a motion to establish a recommended joint select committee to do work around codes of conduct in this building, so we are absolutely acting across the range of recommendations provided by Commissioner Jenkins.


Patricia Karvelas: Brittany Higgins really has been front and centre of spearheading this cultural shift in this place. She says she initially wasn’t invited to attend the acknowledgement. Why not? Has this parliament learnt nothing about the way to consult and to involve these people? Why wasn’t she invited, Minister?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, last week when all of the other parties who have formed part of the cross-party working group, and I know you had Zali Steggall on earlier who I invited to be part of that working group, when all agreed that we would have the Statement of Acknowledgement delivered today, I then asked the Australian Human Rights Commission to contact all participants in Kate Jenkins’ review and to make sure they were informed the acknowledgement would be given at commencement today so that people could tune in from around the country. Now the parliamentary galleries are actually closed to the public right now under the COVID protocol, so people can’t ordinarily come into the building. But when some have expressed an interest in physically attending, special arrangements have been made for those who wish to do so.


Patricia Karvelas: So have special arrangements now been made for Brittany Higgins?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I’m not going to talk about individuals. It’s up to individuals as to whether they are actually going to choose to attend-


Patricia Karvelas: But just trying to get the timeline here because they felt pretty upset that they weren’t invited. Informed is one thing, but to be invited is different. Were protocols then changed late last night to enable them to come?


Simon Birmingham: Well special arrangements were made through the offices of the presiding officers yesterday for people who expressed an interest in physically attending the parliament for this, of course, all of the parliament’s proceedings are live streamed and are available, and that’s why I wanted to make sure that for those right around the country who had participated in this review of parliamentary workplaces, not just the Parliament House but electorate offices across the country, current staff, as well as former staff all had the knowledge that this acknowledgement would occur today. I think, I hope people will see it to be a very sincere acknowledgement and also a very sincere call to action.


Patricia Karvelas: Brittany Higgins will be giving a speech at the Press Club tomorrow with Grace Tame. There’s been reporting that the government has ordered female MPs not to attend. I know you’ve been worried about the close numbers in the parliament. Have you spoken with Labor about pairs?


Simon Birmingham: Oh look, I’ll leave pairs to the whips. I certainly know of a number of colleagues, male and female who I expect will be attending so there’s certainly attendance, now the whips-


Patricia Karvelas: And the government is facilitating that?


Simon Birmingham: Now the whips need to manage of course, attendance in the parliament at the same time. So that’s a juggling act that goes more to-


Patricia Karvelas: Were MPs asked not to go?


Simon Birmingham: No.


Patricia Karvelas: Okay. Was there any kind of worry around pairing and were some told, you know, discouraged because of the numbers in the parliament?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, that may be the case in the whip’s doing the ordinary course of their jobs to make sure enough, members of Parliament are in the parliament at the time for the Parliament to do its job. So that’s not an unusual thing in terms of whips juggling these things. But I am certainly aware that a number of Liberal members or senators are planning to attend.


Patricia Karvelas: Okay, so the Jenkins report makes 28 recommendations. You’ve talked about the implementation. If you don’t implement them all, could you be risking a backlash at the ballot box from women who are fed up with this bad behaviour? You’ve got to do it all, don’t you by the election?


Simon Birmingham: Commission Jenkins was realistic in terms of what could be achieved by the election. So, in the report Set the Standard, she actually outlined the time frames for implementation, and it’s the government’s commitment to take action on all of the recommendations and to do so within the time frames that Kate has recommended in her report. And that’s what we’re getting on with doing as I indicated before, a range of actions already taken and underway, and they’re building upon the fact that last year, even before receiving that report, we established the parliamentary workplace support service to provide a more independent expert process for the hearing of complaints. We’ve seen almost all members and senators and their staff undertake proper training processes around the management of their officers and their staff in these matters. And of course, we’ve got trauma informed counselling services that have been established and stood up already too.


Patricia Karvelas: Minister, time is of the essence. There’s not a lot of time before Parliament, you know, has to end because there’ll be an election. There are reports this morning because you are focussing now on the religious discrimination legislation that the government will only partially repeal Section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act. Church schools will be banned from expelling gay and lesbian students, but they will still be free to discriminate against transgender students. Can you confirm that?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, what I can take you through is a few steps there. There’s the Religious Discrimination Bill that is before the parliament now that is born of a desire to provide people of faith with the same sort of anti-discrimination protection that people have on the basis of their sex, their sexual orientation, their age, disability status or the like to provide an equivalent anti-discrimination provision there. That’s been through two different parliamentary committees, and I know the Attorney-General has been looking at amendments to those bills to act upon the cross party, the Labor and Liberal recommendations of those parliamentary committees to make this bill meet those needs-


Patricia Karvelas: And then there’s the repealing of another section in another legislation in relation to gay students.


Simon Birmingham: There had also been an indication that once this bill was passed, there would be a review of those exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act that the previous Labor government had put in place. What has been indicated is that at least some of those exemptions, the repeal of them could be brought forward.


Patricia Karvelas: Well, the Prime Minister says he wants to do it straight away, right?


Simon Birmingham: I would very much welcome that and encourage that and hope that if this bill can proceed, we can see that bringing forward of the repeal of those exemptions occur too.


Patricia Karvelas: So help me out. You haven’t answered the transgender question. What happens there? Can schools still under the changes you’re proposing and will take to your party room exclude transgender students?


Simon Birmingham: So I understand the proposal that is put forward is to repeal the exemption as it relates to students for being exempted from the Sex Discrimination Act on the basis of their sexual orientation-.


Patricia Karvelas: But not gender?


Simon Birmingham: Now, it doesn’t go further than that. Those other matters, as I understand it, would still be subject to a relatively quick within 12 month review by the Australian Law Reform Commission to try to address the best way to be able to enact any other changes without undermining certain issues around same sex schools or other matters that are there.


Patricia Karvelas: With respect, you could do it quite quickly. You just repeal the whole thing. Why are transgender kids been singled out?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, I think it’s the different issues that certainly were always why these issues were going to be part of an ALRC process if the religious discrimination bill passed. Now, I welcome the fact there’s an opportunity to deal with some of them and to make another positive step forward in terms of equality in this space.


Patricia Karvelas: But equality, it seems just for some Minister, not for transgender students.


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, in the 15 years I’ve served in this parliament, we’ve managed to make many steps. None of them achieve everything in one go. I am pleased that along the journey, we have managed to make a lot of different steps that have taken us closer each time to addressing and resolving different issues-


Patricia Karvelas: But with respect, you’d be allowing the discrimination against transgender students. Are you comfortable with that kind of discrimination, Minister?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, you’re talking about laws that are already in place, this is not-


Patricia Karvelas: And most people think are unacceptable. Can you live with that, allowing discrimination against transgender students to remain?


Simon Birmingham: This is not a proposal of the Religious Discrimination Bill. It is an existing law put in place by the previous Labor government. We are now seeking to try to work through that. Some parts of it have complexity around other related issues. But where there is at least a simple single step that can be taken, I hope that will be taken.


Patricia Karvelas: Minister, can you understand why people listening right now think, hang on a minute? The Morrison Government wants to remove discrimination for gay and lesbian students, but wants to continue discriminating against transgender students. That seems that’s unfair and discriminatory.


Simon Birmingham: That’s certainly not what I would want to see, Patricia and I would hope that the ALRC review process would conclude quickly within that 12 months and find the right way-


Patricia Karvelas: So, you’d like it removed?


Simon Birmingham: -to reconcile the issues to ensure that there are no grounds for inappropriate discrimination to occur. But, of course, that issues in relation to single-sex schools or other matters are appropriately dealt with to support the ongoing work of those important services providers in our community.


Patricia Karvelas: You are a well-known moderate, in fact, the first person on the Liberal side of politics to support same sex marriage a long time ago. Would you like to see discrimination against transgender students removed as well?


Simon Birmingham: I’d like to see as much a discrimination removed as possible whilst respecting the fact that schools of faith, schools structured in different ways as single-sex schools need to be able to find the right way within discrimination laws to it to continue to operate in accordance with the doctrines and tenets of their faith in respect of the wishes of their school communities, of their parents, to make sure those schools are reflective of those who choose to engage with those schools.


Patricia Karvelas: You can’t necessarily get support from the moderates on your own side on this, Minister. So are you trying to wedge Labor on this issue? Is this what this is about?


Simon Birmingham: This is certainly not about any wedges, Patricia. This goes at its heart, as I said, to ensuring that we provide for people of faith, for people of religion and indeed for people not of faith, the same protections against discrimination in our laws as we do on a whole range of other attributes. That goes to whether or not you’re allowed to rent a unit, whether you’re allowed to discriminate in relation to a range of different employment practises, a whole range of other things that are perfectly reasonable to say that your faith should not be a determinant of that. And whether indeed, we’re talking about Jewish or Islamic or Christian schools or any other entities, we’ve got to work through this in a way that respects their different positions too.


Patricia Karvelas: Can you clear up the confusion around a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, Minister. Will you try to legislate the body before the election, as the Prime Minister was suggesting yesterday? Because his Attorney-General, your colleague, Michaelia Cash, suggested it’s over for this term of parliament.


Simon Birmingham: As the government has long said, if the Labor Party is willing to support our model for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, more than 300 pages of it that deals with seeking to integrate the 12 different agencies that we already have at a federal level to deal with corrupt practise across government, that seeks to provide a harmonised approach to integrating the work of them with a new integrity commission without it being the type of star chamber that we see in New South Wales well then we would love to see that legislation progress.


Patricia Karvelas: So you’re saying you need Labor’s support first. When does that ever stop the government trying and your government trying to get something done? Isn’t it your job to try and convince the parliament to support important reform?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, we’ve gone through a very long process of trying to convince people to support this reform of consultation around this reform of designing the 300+ pages of legislation for this reform, and we would welcome Labor’s support for it.


Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham, I look forward to many conversations across this desk. Thank you for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Even some about our economy as Australia’s Finance Minister and 13 year low unemployment rate, perhaps.


Patricia Karvelas: Ah yes, a pointed remark there about the failure to ask a question on that. But you know, there were a few other barnacles in the parliament. You’d have to agree with me, right?


Simon Birmingham: There are many issues, but the jobs of Australians are always at the forefront of my mind and our government’s mind.


Patricia Karvelas: And you’ve made your point. Simon Birmingham, thanks for coming in.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia.