Topics: Vaccine rollout; Review of Parliament workplaces; Media bargaining code; JobSeeker future



Fran Kelly:
Well, the Prime Minister is trumpeting the COVID-19 vaccine as the big game changer for the way we live our lives with the pandemic, despite the major milestone of commencing the vaccine rollout. The government, though, remains engulfed in the Parliament House rape scandal. A third woman has now come forward, claimed she was also assaulted by the same former Liberal staffer who allegedly attacked Brittany Higgins. Simon Birmingham is the Finance Minister and Government Leader in the Senate, Simon Birmingham. Welcome back to breakfast.


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Fran. Good to be with you again.


Fran Kelly: There are now three young women claiming they were sexually assaulted by the same adviser who worked for the Minister Linda Reynolds. Why didn’t the government properly deal with this person when it first learnt what allegedly happened to Brittany Higgins? Why just sack him over a security breach and send him on his way?


Simon Birmingham: Well Fran, I think it is important to remember that Minister Reynolds did involve the federal police and facilitate conversations in that regard. Now what is devastating is, of course, all of these instances, as all cases of sexual assault or any assault are, completely unacceptable across our society. Any workplace should be a safe workplace and the parliament should be a place that leads by example in terms of providing for that safety. And that is clearly the work that we have to do right across party lines, free of politics to provide an environment where these things are far less likely to occur. But if they do, people feel adequate levels of support and obviously one of the most distressing parts about this is that Brittany Higgins did not feel, despite that engagement with police, sufficiently supported to be able to follow through with making a complaint at the time, that I understand she’s now publicly indicated she will do.


Fran Kelly: Yeah, on Wednesday, apparently. But she felt at the time, she said that her job was on the line. It was a binary choice in her view, her career or justice, given her reluctance not to contact the police, is that the end of it – the minister’s responsibility in terms of making sure an alleged criminal is not wandering around free to offend again? I mean, did people consider that?


Simon Birmingham: I think if we take it outside of the specific case of Brittany Higgins and look, more generally, this is one of the significant tension points as to at what point the rights of individuals in making their decisions are respected versus the responsibility of others to try to pursue actions if they are not being pursued or undertaken by the individual.

Now, the ideal world, and this is obviously what I want to make sure we get to and the government wants to make sure we get to, is one where the individual who has been subject to such an attack feels sufficient support to be able to take it forward and that everybody can support them in doing so, in going through the proper policing channels and ensuring that people are brought to justice for any crimes that have been undertaken.


Fran Kelly: Instead, the situation we had now is that one of the three women who have alleged they were raped, one of them was raped, allegedly raped after Brittany Higgins was assaulted. That’s a shocking situation. How’s that weigh on you?


Simon Birmingham: It weighs very, very heavily. All of these incidents weigh heavily. And that is, that is, why we have to and must change culture practices. And the type of work that the Prime Minister has asked me to do is to work across party lines. You heard from Helen Haines on your programme earlier this morning that with the opposition, the Greens, with staff and with experts to ascertain how we can best change the workplace, practices, cultures, to ensure that in future, anybody who is in this sort of position feels that they will have all of the adequate, necessary supports that are there for them. But so far as possible that those practices and cultures change so that this sort of situation never occurs again, which is ideally what we want to see occur.


Fran Kelly: I’m going to come back for some more details on that enquiry. But Labor says it will pursue what it calls the many holes and discrepancies in the government’s account of who knew what and when about the alleged rape in 2019. How can the Minister, Linda Reynolds, say with any credibility she wasn’t aware of the alleged sexual assault until she met with Brittany Higgins on the 1st of April in 2019, when her chief of staff received advice from the finance department on March the 29th about how to handle a sexual assault. How could the minister have not known? If she didn’t know, why was she meeting with her? Have you ascertained that?


Simon Birmingham: I’ve listened carefully to what Minister Reynolds has outlined, and it’s clear that her office was initially informed in relation to security breaches that occurred. Obviously, further information became forthcoming, I think in part from discussions between the chief of staff and Miss Higgins and the other staff member. Action was taken in relation to the security breaches that resulted in the termination of the other staff member, obviously-.


Fran Kelly: But the Minister wasn’t meeting with Brittany Higgins about a security breach.


Simon Birmingham: Obviously, Minister Reynolds sat down to talk to Brittany about all of the issues that had become apparent. And it was a result of those conversations that, as I understand it, facilitated or led to the facilitation of discussions with police.


Fran Kelly: But when she sat down with her, she must have known one of those allegations was a sexual assault?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t know that all of these things are crystal clear as they as they unfold. And obviously, Linda’s concerns, as she has made clear, were for Brittany’s welfare and indeed were to involve the police if that seemed appropriate.


Fran Kelly: There’s also evidence, plenty of it. It would seem that very senior staff in the prime minister’s office did know before February this year, February 12th this year, about the alleged assault. But the Prime Minister is adamant he didn’t know until last Monday when the story broke. What’s this about plausible deniability? Is that how things are run in ministerial offices?


Simon Birmingham: No, Fran, not at all. There are privacy considerations to be weighed through all of these stages as well. Now, as I’ve said-.


Fran Kelly: There are privacy but there’s also safety. We’re talking about a serious crime.


Simon Birmingham: Yes, absolutely, Fran. And look, I don’t steer away from that at all. And that is why I think one of the biggest challenges for the type of review work that we are about to undertake is to work out exactly how to put in place the best possible procedures that firstly, prevent anything from happening. Secondly, provide sufficient support for people to have confidence to act quickly if something has happened. But thirdly, deal with these types of difficult questions that if somebody does not wish to proceed with the complaint, does not wish for the issues to be raised with other people, then how are those who have been informed to act and to handle that, balancing those privacy considerations of the individual? But the broader safety questions that that are clear and apparently raised.


Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham, let’s go to the inquiry that you’re dealing with, the crossbench and the all the other parties in Parliament House about the terms of reference. Who would you like to see run such an inquiry and how soon will we see that person appointed?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I want complete independence. I want people to have full confidence that this enquiry is genuinely an independent multi-party process. I’m not going to pre-empt who that person may be. I spoke over the weekend with Kate Jenkins, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, to seek Kate’s assistance. As I work through this process of consultation with all of the different other parties and independents across the parliament to seek their input into the terms of reference into potential reviewers or reviewers who might be involved in the process, and I’ll equally be trying to reach out to engage with different staff representatives and indeed some of those who have raised issues in the past to make sure that considerations just at the establishment of this review are thorough and comprehensive and taking into account all the different perspectives.


Fran Kelly: Brittany Higgins has said publicly that she wants, quote, a voice in framing the scope and terms of reference for the review. Will she be involved in this process? How much input can she have?


Simon Birmingham: I absolutely will welcome Brittany’s input and will be reaching out there. I’ve said that on the record already. As I said before, I want current and former staff to feel that they have a voice both in the design of the review and of course, then a very crucial voice in terms of input into that review.


Fran Kelly: And how soon, what’s your timeline as to how soon do you want this person in place for this review and some and some change implemented?


Simon Birmingham: So I have meetings scheduled throughout the week to talk to the Labor Party, the Greens, the independents, staff, etc., as we’ve just been discussing. And I would hope to move as quickly as possible thereafter. This is not something that I expect to drag on for weeks in terms of its establishment.


Fran Kelly: So we might have a name by the end of the week?


Simon Birmingham: Well as I say, the meetings of consultation happening throughout this week, right up to Friday. So next week is probably more likely than this week. But I do want to make sure that we get it underway as quickly as possible. And then it is a balance between doing it as speedily and quickly as we can, which is important, but also as thoroughly as possible. But I, I note that Dr Helen Haines, earlier in your programme, was talking about getting this work done quickly. I welcome that. As long as we also ensure that it has the time to be thorough.


Fran Kelly:  The media bargaining legislation goes into the Senate today. Minister, the government spent the weekend trying to negotiate a resolution with Facebook. Has there been a breakthrough?


Simon Birmingham: The Treasurer had further conversations with Mark Zuckerberg. And I think there are some promising signs that I see in some of the media reports that are out there. We urge Facebook to acknowledge that it should behave as we would expect any other re-publisher of content to behave.


Fran Kelly: Are you going to give ground? Is the media bill going to be amended to try and satisfy or Facebook?


Simon Birmingham: No, the government made some amendments to the legislation. And we brought it into the House of Representatives, we did that following all of the consultations with both the big tech companies and the giants there, as well as with media and news organisations. And we think the bill, as it stands that is passed through the House of Reps and into the Senate is a bill that meets the right balance, serves the purpose of ensuring that Australian generated news content by Australian generated news organisations can and should be paid for and done so in a fair and legitimate way of negotiation between the parties. Google has managed to do that with many media companies. There’s no reason Facebook can’t do and achieve what Google already has.


Fran Kelly: What do you make of reports that some of the media companies are saying that in the negotiations there is what they call a poison pill clause that Facebook refuses to take out, that the clause would allow Facebook to walk away from any one-off deals with publishers if the legislation is passed. What do you make of that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the legislation is going to pass, that the government’s intention and so media companies should have confidence that the government is serious about putting this legislation in place. And Facebook should know that the government is determined to have the legislative framework there. If everybody is negotiating effectively, then the terms of that legislation need not necessarily be acted upon. But we absolutely want the legislative framework there because we think that provides the right incentive for parties to negotiate and to get satisfactory outcomes that respects the rights and protects the rights of Australian news organisations and gives us the best possible chance in the future of maintaining those Australian journalists and news organisations telling Australian stories with Australian voices.


Fran Kelly: Two quick ones. The government spend more than $40 million on digital advertising last year. Much of that would have been on Facebook. As Finance Minister, will you instruct departments to pull all advertising from Facebook for now?


Simon Birmingham: It is my expectation that we will pull back from advertising on Facebook while they undertake this type of terrible activity, pulling down sites inappropriately of seeking to exert power or influence over our democratic systems, that we won’t tolerate that. And we will be standing firm on the legislation and also looking at all of those advertising points.


Fran Kelly: And the Expenditure Review Committee met on Friday. We understand the permanent rise, the JobSeeker allowance has now been locked in. How much more will the unemployed receive after the 150 dollars COVID supplement comes off at the end of March?


Simon Birmingham: The government is still finalising all of our decisions in these areas, Fran. We have got very large amounts of support and stimulus still flowing into the Australian economy post March, be they programmes like the HomeBuilder programme or the JobMaker programme, or be it indeed the impact of-.


Fran Kelly: But there will be a rise to JobSeeker?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll make any announcements about that, as we’ve indicated. Well, and truly clear by the end of March.


Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Fran. My pleasure.