Topics: Vaccine rollout; Review of Parliament workplace practices;



David Bevan: Finance Minister and Leader of the Government in the Senate, joins us now. Good morning, Simon Birmingham.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David and Ali and happy vaccine day to all the listeners.


David Bevan: Well, before we get on to the business of Brittany Higgins and your role in trying to get a handle on this, the vaccines, they’re being rolled out around the country, but in very small amounts. I mean, how it looks like a token effort as of this week. When are we going to see some substantial roll out of vaccines that will actually make a difference to health outcomes and management of the pandemic?


Simon Birmingham: So it does scale up quite quickly. Even this week across Australia, we’re expecting to see 60,000 vaccines administered in this first week. Some 4,000, of course, arrived in Adelaide yesterday at the airport just as I was leaving to head to Canberra. And ultimately, around 12,000 are expected to be administered in South Australia over the first three weeks. But what we’re looking for in the first phase of the vaccine rollout is that by April, 678,000 vaccines are administered targeted to the many hotel workers, the border workers, the quarantine workers, the front line health care workers, aged care and disability care staff, and aged care and disability care residents. And so we’re prioritising based on risk and then we move through. The next phase takes us very quickly into much faster administration of vaccines. And we expect to see 6.2 million vaccines delivered in that next phase. Beyond that, as we then move past those priority groups, which are indigenous Australians, other elderly Australians and the like, we move into further cohorts. And until ultimately we get to the latter cohorts, that will include people like people like me and you, Ali, I suspect we’ll all be right at the back end of the queue based on need. But that will be about making sure that we’ve done the priority work, our aim is to have all Australians having the chance to have a vaccine by October.


Ali Clarke: David’s just a little bit sad. You didn’t include him in that cohort to have-


Simon Birmingham: Well, I didn’t. I’m sure. David, I didn’t want to ask your age on air, David. I mean, I know that you know that, Ali, of course-.


David Bevan: That’s alright you just don’t want me to be vaccinated. I understand that, Minister.


Simon Birmingham: You’ve always been fond of guinea pigs, David.


Ali Clarke: Senator Birmingham. Look, with differences and or perceived differences between, say, the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca vaccines, can South Australians rest assured that we will have the same amount of each of those vaccines as every other state or territory?


Simon Birmingham: Yes, everything is being done on the basis of need and the basis of the medical advice and information that is there, people should have confidence in both of the vaccines. Australia’s own health experts, through the Therapeutic Goods Administration, through the experts, have guided us so successfully through this pandemic so far, have given their stamp of approval to both the vaccines that are part of our initial rollout. And people should know that these vaccines are being demonstrated around the world to prevent serious illness and to prevent hospitalisation and to keep people safe.


David Bevan: Senator, some Birmingham Minister of Finance, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, what’s the task that you’ve been given, I presume, by the Prime Minister regarding the fallout from the case of Brittany Higgins?


Simon Birmingham: Well, David, as Finance Minister, one of my responsibilities beyond the obvious budget ones relates to the staff of members of parliament. And so the Prime Minister has asked me to work with all political parties and independents across the parliament to establish an independent multi-party review into the way in which workplace matters are managed around parliamentary staff, how we can provide for a culture in an environment that reduces and minimises the risk of such terrible sexual assaults or any other harassment or wrongdoing occurring.

How we can have better processes that give any victims of such practises in the future more confidence to take it through proper complaints, process panels and processes to pursue their complaints vigorously and how those who are working with them can be better informed around the support that they can provide to help individuals in those very difficult times. We’ve heard some horrific stories and I’m confident that we can all learn how to better handle such instances in the future and that the parliament should be an example for the nation of how to how to best approach these sorts of problems that do exist elsewhere. But we have to acknowledge very clearly these tragic incidents as demonstrated that exist here in our own backyard in Parliament House and we to get on and fix it.


Ali Clarke: Senator Simon Birmingham, with all due respect, you’re a bit late, aren’t really on this. You’re a bit late there would be people that work in all sorts of organisations, that volunteer in all sorts of community organisations that have been subject and have developed these policies and procedures years ago. Why has it taken so long to get the act into gear in Parliament House where you guys should really be setting the standards?


Simon Birmingham: Ali, it’s not that we are without practices at present-


Ali Clarke: Well they clearly don’t work, you’d have to say that with what’s come out. They just don’t work.


Simon Birmingham: Yes, and Ali we are clearly admitting the inadequacy of what is there. That is why this process is being undertaken, because the stories told by Brittany Higgins and by others over the last couple of years are a clear demonstration of the fact that too many people don’t feel that they can go through with police complaints.


David Bevan: Minister, have you ever had a similar complaint of assault or harassment in your own office?


Simon Birmingham: Never that has been brought to me. But I am aware of a former staff member of mine who has, subsequent to leaving my office, raised allegations it didn’t occur in the workplace, but it involved another staff member. And these issues as I say, I think we can all learn how to try to create an environment for better support.


David Bevan: And how did your office handle that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, as I say, the issue was never brought to me or my office. It was taken to the media some time after both individuals had ceased employment in my office.


David Bevan: What would you do if something like Brittany Higgins had happened in your office?


Simon Birmingham: If somebody came to me today and talked to me as a staff member about these issues, I would do in part as Minister Reynolds actually did, which is try to bring the police in and urge those discussions. I would encourage the individual involved to seek independent counselling, support services and advice there so that they can be supported. And I would give them my absolute commitment in undertaking that they had my full support, that their job was secure, and that I backed all of the decisions that they would make in relation to pursuing such a horrific instance through the appropriate channels with police while also getting all of the emotional support that clearly anybody in those circumstances needs.


David Bevan: You say there was an instance where there was a staff member, but it wasn’t brought to your attention. It must have been brought to your attention eventually. Did you retrospectively go back and try and sort that out or had the caravan moved on?


Simon Birmingham: David, so the was brought to my attention by the media, by the journalists, by a journalist contacting us. After the individual had spoken to the media. I provided advice about the type of support services that I thought could offer professional independent advice and support for the individual to make their own decisions about how to best pursue an outcome, including police investigations, if they wanted to.


David Bevan: And do you think you and your office, your staff conducted themselves in best practise in that case?


Simon Birmingham: David look, I don’t know. As I’ve said in this interview a couple of times, I think we can all learn how to provide even better support and assistance on these things. And that is why we’re having an independent review, which is why I’ve said publicly that – Miss Higgins had indicated she would like to not only offer views to the independent review, but provide feedback around how it should be established. So this week, I’m not just talking to the Labor Party and the Greens and independent MPs about how we should establish it. I’m talking to staff members and I will reach out and extend to others who have been in these positions the opportunity to talk to me and officials so that we make sure the process we put in place is thorough and does absolutely support people to – as I say first and foremost, reduce the rate of these incidences, eliminate their occurrence wherever possible. But knowing that in large workplaces there is always a risk, we then got to have better processes and practises that give people absolute confidence that they will be supported through the reporting and the handling of them.


Ali Clarke: Okay, Senator Simon Birmingham, we have to leave it there for time. Thank you very much.