Topics: Parliament House culture; Phil Gaetjens inquiry; Parliament House workplace review
Fran Kelly: The shocking behaviour that we’ve been hearing about in Parliament House is plumbing new depths again, revelations on 10 news last night that male government staffers have exchanged photos and videos of themselves performing sex acts, including one on the desk of a female MP. One Liberal staffer has since been sacked. The Prime Minister has described the conduct as disgusting and unacceptable. Simon Birmingham is Finance Minister. It’s his department that technically employs the staff at the centre of this latest scandal, Simon Birmingham. Welcome back to our breakfast.
Simon Birmingham: Hello, Fran. Thank you for the opportunity.
Fran Kelly: What is going on in the Liberal Party? Why has such, to quote the Prime Minister, disgusting and unacceptable behaviour been allowed to fester within the walls of Parliament House and your government?
Simon Birmingham: Within a group of people there is clearly a cultural problem, Fran. There is no doubt about that. These are appalling incidents and the government has no tolerance for them. And that is why swift action was taken last night when one of the offenders was identified and their employment terminated. And we won’t have any tolerance for any of this. These individuals have shown enormous disrespect to their employing member or senator to the Australian public who give them the privilege of being able to work in our institution of democracy here. And they’ve shown enormous disrespect for their fellow workmates and colleagues. There are many, many people, good people, hardworking people who will be coming to work in Parliament House today, feeling a sense of shame. And they shouldn’t feel that. They should feel a sense of pride coming here. And that indeed is why we have to fix these cultural problems and why the work that we’ve asked the Sex Discrimination Commissioner to do with the support of all political parties and independents is so very, very important to make sure that this place becomes one of best practise when it comes to preventing harassment, sexual assault, bullying and making sure the culture is the leading culture in the nation as it should be.
Fran Kelly: Well, you say swift action was taken, but it was only taken once these obscene videos and photos have been leaked to the media. Now, staffers knew about this. These were being shared with people. I mean, people must have known about this. What is there’s something very wrong with the culture within the government at the moment where people think, oh, well, this is what goes in this place, not to mention the other horrific things we’ve been hearing about in terms of allegations of sexual assault.
Simon Birmingham: Fran, I want to put the call out very clearly to everybody working across parliamentary workplaces that if they have information about any of these sorts of acts, about anything inappropriate occurring in the workplace, please come forward. Please share that information. Ideally, share it, if you can, with your employing member or senator. Feel free to come and share it with me if you wish. Share it, certainly with the confidential Kate Jenkins Review, use the new serious incident support line that the government has established 1800 APH SPT to get support and assistance. And certainly I have reached out to the journalist who reported these incidents, making a request that he extend to the whistle-blower the invitation to talk to the government so that we can fully understand who is engaged, who was responsible and take the type of action we’ve taken with those who have been identified already in terms of dismissing them from work in this building.
Fran Kelly: And will launch something more proactive than just a call out to people to come forward. You know, sex acts we saw on the television last night performed on the desk of at least one federal MP. Probably more. Liberal women, I imagine, will be incandescent about what’s going on. There’s a coalition party room, I think, meeting this morning at the Liberal Party room meeting. What will you were the Prime Minister be saying to your female colleagues about this, to all of your colleagues about this? And despite the Jenkins review, will you be launching some kind of internal investigation in amongst the staff of your party?
Simon Birmingham: Well, as we’ve done, we’ve already worked to dismiss one person identified in these acts. And so-
Fran Kelly: Did you just identify them from watching the video. Is that how that person was identified?
Simon Birmingham: That essentially is the case. And so we will continue the work as best we possibly can through analysis of what’s been published, through discussions that we can have with anybody who has any knowledge to make sure that if there are further dismissals that should occur, then that they do occur. We won’t have any tolerance for this. But certainly beyond that, we are working to try to take other interim steps. We have been working with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet around what type of education and cultural awareness should be mandatory in this building and how do we make sure that is the case. Particularly working-
Fran Kelly: It beggars belief really that in a building like Parliament House, we need that kind of education? I mean, these are people who are tertiary educated. It does what you do. Worry about the culture that allows people to think this is OK and I can’t even believe I’m going to say this next thing, but in that 10 report last night, there were also claims of MPs. And we’re not talking long distance, long time ago. Some of these things were this year and last year, as I understand it, MPs bringing sex workers into Parliament House. What’s your reaction to that? And had you heard of that?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m disgusted, Fran. I hadn’t heard of that. And once again, if anybody can share more specific details in relation to that than they should, it won’t be tolerated in this building-
Fran Kelly: And again, I say, rather than a call out, will you get every, I mean, that your department is responsible for the staff? Will you get every member of staff in Parliament House before you and ask them, are you aware of this? Did you facilitate this? What went on?
Simon Birmingham: Fran, I’m not going to conduct a star chamber, but we will certainly be talking to anybody that we think has any information as we work through the images that were published. As you can see, within a very short period of time, we were able to identify one person, to dismiss that one person. If we can secure further information from that individual, then then we will take those steps. Equally, I’ve reached out to the journalist involved. Similarly to ask him to convey to the whistle-blower the government’s desire to talk directly to that individual and that we will continue to pursue every avenue that’s available to us. We’re not going to tolerate this at all. We want to make sure we change the culture. We’re taking the steps in the short term. And to your point about a workplace like Parliament House, can I say many large workplaces have mandatory training in relation to making sure people understand their responsibilities in the work, including their responsibilities and the processes and systems available to them in instances of sexual harassment and assault or bullying practises in the workplace or any other inappropriate conduct. And as a very large workplace, that’s the type of standard that this one needs to have too.
Fran Kelly: Women are watching what’s going on and they’re not liking. And I think they’ve made that pretty clear. I’m sure you’ve got their message by now. Yesterday, we had the Prime Minister not being up front in the parliament when he was asked last week in Question Time about the Gaetjens inquiry into who knew what in his office about Brittany Higgins’ allegations of rape. When the Prime Minister addressed those questions we now know through Senate estimates he knew that that investigation by Phil Gaetjens had been paused or suspended, but he did not tell the parliament that. It all smacks of political management rather than respecting the serious nature of these issues.
Simon Birmingham: The Prime Minister asked the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to look into the issues of who was made aware of different instances around Brittany Higgins’ case. Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary got that work underway. He did so at arm’s length then from the Prime Minister-
Fran Kelly: Sure. I’m only coming in because we’re running out of time. But we know from Senate estimates he put that inquiry on pause because he spoke to the police commissioner who indicated apparently that he thought that would be appropriate. And then Phil Gaetjens rang the Prime Minister and told him that. And yet a week later, the Prime Minister stood in the parliament and said that he didn’t know he didn’t know when the Gaetjens inquiry is going to come on when he actually knew it had been paused and he didn’t tell us. Why didn’t he?
Simon Birmingham: Well, no. The Prime Minister said that Mr. Gaetjens would come to Senate estimates to answer questions. And that’s exactly what Mr. Gaetjens did.
Fran Kelly: Why couldn’t the Prime Minister answer in the Parliament, he knew?
Simon Birmingham: Because the Prime Minister wanted to make sure that Mr Gaetjens was empowered to do this at arm’s length, that it wasn’t the Prime Minister running a political control of it, that Mr Gaetjens would be there to answer the questions himself, as he did about his conversations with the police commissioner, who to make sure that nothing is done to compromise the potential of a successful investigation and prosecution in the Brittany Higgins matter, asked Mr Gaetjens to put on hold parts of his work.
Fran Kelly: And just very briefly, the Kate Jenkins inquiry, some former staff have been demanding FOI protections and some are unhappy with how that’s been legislated, just briefly. What’s the latest?
Simon Birmingham: Indeed, Fran. The government responded last week by introducing legislation to the parliament to provide FOI protections for anybody who participates in the Kate Jenkins review into parliamentary workplaces, the Sexual Discrimination Commissioner’s review. I’ve heard the concerns of those who are worried that the draft legislation goes too far. We want to make sure we maintain support of all staff in this process and are working very closely with independents, with the opposition during the course of this week to try to make sure we get the legislation right so that everybody maintains absolute confidence that they can participate in this review with full confidentiality, but that it doesn’t do anything to undermine their ability to progress their own individual cases or claims if they wish to do so.
Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Fran, my pleasure.