Topics: Jenkins Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces; Senate conduct; privileges committee; National Cabinet; Omicron variant; Future Fund bill;



Patricia Karvelas: He’s my guest this afternoon, Minister, welcome.


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Patricia. Good to be with you.


Patricia Karvelas: One in three employees have been harassed while at work in Parliament House. Why has this been an accepted standard until now, until Brittany Higgins was able to raise her difficult allegations in relation to what happened to her to spearhead this?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, the report that we’ve received today from Kate Jenkins looks back over a long period of time of conduct dating through many parliaments and indeed, what it does show is that in this workplace, as we’ve seen through other reports elsewhere around the nation, there have been some unacceptable practises a culture that clearly needs to change, and it provides an important vehicle for change. And we must take the events that have been exposed throughout the course of this year as a motivation to deliver change. And we must take this report forward now as we’ve developed it and worked collaboratively across the parliament to commission it and to now make sure that all parties, opposition, government, crossbenchers work together to achieve the recommendations from it. For the change to culture, the change to practise, for change to structures, all of which need to need to occur.


Patricia Karvelas: 46% of employees who have experienced sexual assault told Kate Jenkins’ review it was at the hands of parliamentarians, MPs, elected people to the parliament. How does the government plan to address what the review has viewed a lack of standard that’s allowed for confusion on accepted behaviour?


Simon Birmingham: Couple things there, Patricia. We haven’t sat on our hands through the course of this year. While Commissioner Jenkins been undertaking this body of work, we put in place a number of things. A support service for staff and training arrangements for MPs and staff, but also, crucially, a new complaints mechanism that does include at the final hurdle. If individuals, including a member of Parliament, don’t accept recommendations from an independent process looking into a complaint, then the failure to accept those recommendations is exposed so that members of Parliament can be held to account for their failure to do so. The work that Commissioner Jenkins has provided us with today now builds on those changes we’ve put in place during the course of this year ensuring that we are in the best possible position to change that culture through improved practises and indeed to have that level of accountability and transparency. Whether you’re a member of Parliament or anybody else working in this building, everyone should be expected to respect the workplace of those they work around and alongside of.


Patricia Karvelas:  Twenty eight recommendations in this report, amongst them, an external review in 18 months to review progress, an Office of Parliamentary Staffing and Culture and an Independent Standards Commission. Do you accept and will you recommend all 28 recommendations?


Simon Birmingham: It is the government’s desire to positively progress these recommendations.


Patricia Karvelas: All 28 fully?


Simon Birmingham: They are broadly recommendations that affect the Parliament, not just the government. And so our desire is to progress them all, Patricia. And to do so in the most constructive way that we possibly can. We want to do that working with opposition, with crossbenchers. In setting up this review, I consulted extensively with the opposition, the crossbench, both staff, current and former, to select the reviewer to settle the terms of reference to discuss the timing and timeline for it. We’ve done that as well in relation to implementing the reforms that have taken place through the course of this year, and we want to do that again in terms of responding to and acting on the recommendations from Commissioner Jenkins. I’m pleased with initial discussions and indications from the opposition, from the Greens and from the crossbench, and I’m sure that we will all be able to continue that collaborative approach to make sure the Parliament of Australia sets the standard. As this report is called for the nation and that actually is an exemplar for other practises around the country.


Patricia Karvelas: It’s a far cry from an exemplar right now, though, right?


Simon Birmingham: Clearly, it shows it shows unacceptable practises. Now, we’re not the first workplace in the country to have this sort of report identifying these sorts of problems, but we are a workplace that should set that example and set that standard. And that’s why we must take change here as seriously as we possibly can-


Patricia Karvelas: It calls for clear guidelines on expectations around alcohol and alcohol consumption in the House. What are your thoughts on this? Do you need to ban drinking and eating parliamentary offices so that it’s a safe workplace and people don’t misbehave? Obviously, in my view, it’s a bit more than alcohol that makes people misbehave. It’s an abuse of power. But if alcohol becomes a sort of problem as well, don’t you need to take that seriously?


Simon Birmingham: We should take it seriously and we will take that recommendation quite seriously in that regard.


Patricia Karvelas: What might that look like, though?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think that’s something we’ll have to have to work through the process on. There’s nothing wrong with a team of workmates having a social drink at the end of the day to celebrate somebody’s birthday or to do any of those sorts of things. Where and how that occurs is something that needs to be thought through quite carefully. This is a place where people work very long hours under very intense and high pressure arrangements, with lots of scrutiny applied to them. But none of that is an excuse for people to engage in bullying practises, let alone sexual harassment or assault. And so we’ve got to be very clear that although this is an unusual and extraordinary workplace, it’s one that we should expect the highest of standards. And of course, it’s one where overwhelmingly people who come here to work, whether it’s as an MP, a staffer, a journalist, a member of the parliamentary departments that support its operation, they all feel pride in getting a job here in coming to work in the nation’s parliament, and we want to make sure they have that pride intact throughout their working life here and that they leave proud of what they have achieved and contributed to during that time, rather than facing these sorts of appalling practises.


Patricia Karvelas: A senator has reportedly this afternoon made growling and dog noises, while Jacqui Lambie was asking questions about public housing and homelessness. Is that appropriate behaviour, particularly on the same day that this report was handed down?


Simon Birmingham: No, it’s not, Patricia. It’s not. And I’ve asked the whip in the Senate to see whether it’s possible to identify who that person was because they ought to have if it occurred, apologise. Frankly, I mean, I heard her the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Albanese was throwing names around the chamber against government ministers this afternoon as well. None of it’s appropriate and the standards should be high from everybody.


Patricia Karvelas: Do you know what the names were? Because there was a particular I don’t know what the names were. I can’t hear just watching on the television screen, but it’s not the same as I’m assuming as growling dog noises, which are degrading, sexist ways of trying to humiliate a woman in the parliament, right?


Simon Birmingham: Well, they’re all unacceptable. And I think there is a standard of conduct that everybody here should adhere to, and I’d encourage everyone to do so.


Patricia Karvelas: The privileges committee has found Christian Porter’s declaration, part of his legal fees were paid by a blind trust, did not breach parliamentary rules. It has called for MPs to provide the greatest level of transparency in disclosing the source of gifts. Do the rules need to be changed? Minister, are the rules a problem here?


Simon Birmingham: My understanding is that that privileges committee report and it’s a House of Reps report that I haven’t had time today to look at the detail of. But my understanding is it indicates that the privileges committee intends to take further work, undertake further work to look at the transparency that that privileges committee would recommend exists and how reporting by members of Parliament can be made in the future in ways that provide that degree of transparency the report speaks about, and I welcome that work, that they’re going to undertake.


Patricia Karvelas: The arrival of international students and skilled migrants and humanitarian visa holders has been delayed by a fortnight. Does this risk deterring skilled migrants and international students who we know both desperately need? We need for our own economy?


Simon Birmingham: I appreciate it creates an element of uncertainty. But we are taking this step out of an abundance of caution, a two week pause on what had been planned to be the next stage of reopening elements of our international borders from the first of December. It’s a two week pause just while we get all the best possible information, evidence and analysis in relation to the Omicron variant. It’s important that we do that with at every stage of this pandemic, from Scott Morrison’s decision to close Australia’s border to China on the first of February last year, right throughout followed the best possible health advice and information. This variant is new. There are only some things known about it at present. It’s important everybody keeps it in perspective as increasingly health experts, I think, identify that it may not be as severe as perhaps first reported or thought in some places, and the vaccines do probably continue to provide a reasonable level of protection there. But in two weeks time, we’ll have far more analysis to answer those questions and then we can, with all hope and expectation, move forward with that next stage of reopening that we had planned.


Patricia Karvelas: The chief medical officer has declared Australia won’t be able to keep Omicron out. Is the pause necessary then?


Simon Birmingham: That’s necessary. While we just work through all of those different implications, it’s- he is entirely correct that in a global pandemic with these types of variants and the spread that that does occur, you can’t keep them at bay forever, but you certainly can make sure that you’re as well prepared for handling them as is possible. And that’s what we’re seeking to do just with this cautious step.


Patricia Karvelas: And what’s the prime minister seeking to do in the national cabinet meeting, which is probably starting now?


Simon Birmingham: Make sure that that all of the state and territory leaders have the same briefings in relation to the health advice that we are receiving. Our health officials at a federal government level are engaging closely with the World Health Organisation and with their counterparts around the rest of the world about what Omicron means and what we do know to date. What we don’t know to date and the work processes that are underway to expand that body of knowledge to enable us all to act with confidence. And so this is very much an information sharing exercise. And of course, to step through how we have changed those aspects we were just discussing of the national plan.


Patricia Karvelas: Queensland’s Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told the state parliament today the fact that countries have closed their borders indicates to her that Omicron is far more serious than Delta. Is this meeting about also establishing that the states are still on the path to open their domestic borders? Is the federal government concerned that that might shift before Christmas?


Simon Birmingham: We’d urge all the states to maintain their broad approach around the national plan. They have come from different starting places and worked through this in their own way. But overwhelmingly they’ve outlined the steps and the processes for reopening domestic borders. It’s important that they remain committed to doing that. What we want them all to have is that evidence so that they can keep their own sense of perspective in relation to Omicron. It’s important that none of them overreact to it.


Patricia Karvelas: No overreaction we should all be cautious of. But under reaction might be an issue, too. If we are to find out in one or two weeks that Omicron is a bigger issue. Will you respect states rights to perhaps delay reopening if that is established?


Simon Birmingham: Well, as always, we’ll all respond to changing circumstances if the evidence justifies those changing circumstances. But right now, the information before us suggests it’s prudent to gather that extra evidence, but that there is no need for us to panic at this point in time.


Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, a bill before Parliament seeks to shield the Future Fund from Freedom of Information requests. Why should the Future Fund be exempt from FOIs? Why that and how is 20 requests a year administratively burdensome? Surely, 20 aren’t hard to deal with?


Simon Birmingham: It’s not a blanket exemption from FOI. Patricia, what that bill seeks to do is to ensure that the Future Fund doesn’t have to disclose or consider FOI applications that may be commercially sensitive and undermine its ability to get the best possible returns for taxpayers. But the Future Fund would still be expected to publish where it invests, where taxpayer dollars are invested as part of that process, so that there is transparency in relation to that regard and there would be other administrative aspects of the Future Fund would still be expected to be transparent around as well. But what we do want to make sure is that the Future Fund, which has managed to treble the investments that have been made in it to date, remains in an ever more challenging investment landscape. Best place to get the most accurate commercial advice from commercial advisers around the world whose information is highly sensitive, is highly sought after and where they have expressed concern and reservations about the fact that FOI implications could mean that they’re commercially sensitive. Information loses its value in in their other trading arrangements, which makes them hesitant to deal with the Future Fund. This is a change that, in fact, was first recommended by Lindsay Tanner back when he was finance minister. Quite some years ago, it’s taken a while to get to the parliament, but I’m pleased that it’s there and reassure everybody. It’s not about keeping secret where the Future Fund invests its money. We still expect that to be perfectly transparent.


Patricia Karvelas: We’ve run out of time. Thanks for coming on.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia, and congrats on the new RN gig too.


Patricia Karvelas: RN Breakfast. Are you going to come on?


Simon Birmingham: Oh, I’ve been a frequent guest of Fran’s and I look forward to being a frequent guest of yours too.


Patricia Karvelas: Oh god made yourself a frequent guest again. I suppose we’ll have to lock it in then. That’s the Finance Minister Simon Birmingham there.