Topics: Parliament House culture; Vaccination rollout; Economic recovery

Laura Jayes: The ongoing culture of crisis in Parliament House as more allegations surface of misconduct, sexual harassment and even rape. Simon Birmingham is the Finance Minister and joins us live now from Adelaide. Minister, thanks for your time. Before we get to anything else, this has been a really hard couple of weeks for staff in that building in Parliament House on both sides. How are they doing? Are you worried about some.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. And thanks for the opportunity. And I think it’s a very fair question to ask. And yes, it does concern me the toll that the events of the last few weeks take, those of us who are elected and hold offices like mine, well, we just have to get on and do our job. And there should be no complaints in that regard. But for our staff who work across the building, I think it’s important to know and for them to understand that they are valued and that certainly members of parliament, senators, the ministers working across the building know that the vast majority of staff in that building, be they women or men, be they in same sex relationships or heterosexual couples or singles, whatever their circumstances we know the vast majority of them are good, hardworking people. Who put in long hours in sometimes difficult and trying circumstances, to do the best for the country in accordance with their values and principles. And that, yes, we have some serious problems and issues caused by some people that we have to fix. We have to address the cultural problems. There’s no shirking or getting away from that. But I have also made sure in recent weeks that we have had constant reminders of the counselling and support services that are available, that individuals who might be feeling under some pressure are reminded of those counselling and support services. And I think overall we do need to make sure we fix these issues so that the people who come to work in parliament feel pride in coming to work in parliament so that we can attract the best and brightest, as indeed we have over many years with some of the exceptional people that I’ve had the privilege of working alongside be they Liberal, Labour, National, Green, Independent. All people attract some great staff to the building and that’s so essential to making sure our democracy in our country continues to succeed.


Laura Jayes: Yep. And the whistleblower who exposed coalition staffers masturbating in MPs offices says he’s passed the information on to you. Is that correct?


Simon Birmingham: So there has been some cooperation in relation to the investigations we launched after that story aired on Monday night. As is well known, we’ve taken a zero tolerance approach. One individual who engaged in grossly inappropriate acts in the workplace was sacked on Monday night. If others are identified having undertaken similar things, then there will be similar consequences for them. And I’m grateful for some of the cooperation that we’ve had to date. And I hope that we can have more so that we can work through these issues and ensure that the right standards are enforced. And indeed, I hope that sends a message to anybody who thinks about doing the wrong thing in future.


Laura Jayes: What are you doing with this extra information that- have you set up a different investigation? Have you asked the department for advice? What is it?


Simon Birmingham: So we are seeking further advice. Clearly, we’ve got to make sure that where action is taken, it’s taken on the basis of there being sufficient evidence for the consequences that that may be levelled. So at this point in time, we’re still seeking some further information and some further details that can hopefully progress these matters. But as I’ve made clear from the first instance in which I heard of it, there’s no tolerance for this type of behaviour. And if people are identified having engaged in such wrongdoing, then they can expect to be shown the door.


Laura Jayes: Ok, well, we’ll wait to see what comes out of that investigation. What’s happening to get to the bottom of PMO staffers briefing against Brittany Higgins and her loved ones. Is that happening through your department?


Simon Birmingham: So I understand the Prime Minister’s office has sought some advice to help the consideration of those matters that Miss Higgins has raised directly with the Prime Minister. And the Prime Minister’s been clear that he is not aware that such things did occur. He certainly, doesn’t and wouldn’t condone any such thing from occurring. And again, wants to make sure that everyone can have confidence that such behaviour won’t happen.


Laura Jayes: Point blank, he could ask them?


Simon Birmingham: I think in relation to these employment matters, it’s always important to act in the appropriate way to not only safeguard the rights of individuals, but also to safeguard taxpayers down the track too.


Laura Jayes: Ok, well, at the moment, I think watching what’s going on in the last five weeks, the government seems to be taking more action against people masturbating in Parliament House than those who actually knew about an alleged rape, is that fair?


Simon Birmingham: I don’t think that’s fair or I think the issues around Miss Higgins obviously warrant full understanding and investigation so that in future such things are handled better in relation to her case. What we all hope is that the police inquiry that has been initiated subsequent to her statement to police actually proceeds successfully. I mean, there’s sometimes in the politics of all of this, it’s overlooked that there is an alleged crime. And what everybody should want to see happen is the successful investigation prosecution and should the individual be found guilty, conviction and justice meted out in that regard. And there’s a range of other issues that have surfaced over recent weeks, questions when it comes to a sexual assault around when and how people should be told. And I think crucially, making sure that in the culture and systems of the place, how do we make sure that anybody who faces anything remotely like the terrible circumstances Miss Higgins found herself in, has the confidence to come forward knowing they’ll get all the support in the world, knowing their job is safe, knowing that they can go through to police at whatever point in time and actually instigate the investigation that is now underway. And there are the systemic types of changes to culture, to practise, to processes that Kate Jenkins is looking at, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. But we’re also taking some no regret steps in the interim in terms of new support services. We’re looking at training, education and induction processes. We’re looking at reporting and complaints processes. And we’ll take a number of those steps even before Commissioner Jenkins reports. And then we’ll build upon that with whatever Kate brings back to us.


Laura Jayes: Ok, let’s talk vaccine rollout. Just last week, the Prime Minister said CSL would be producing one million doses of the vaccine a week. And that was from Monday. Has that happen?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think in I think in week one, we’re running in excess of eight hundred thousand is what I heard in the last couple of days. I haven’t had an update recently, but that’s a very impressive start for week one of domestic production and domestic production is really the life saver for Australia here. It certainly justifies the decisions that were taken last year to invest in the CSL facility to provide them with the support and capacity and contracts-.


Laura Jayes: Sure. But we’ve only seen 400,000 vaccines actually be administered and go into people’s arms. The slow vaccine rollout threatens our economic recovery, does it not?


Simon Birmingham: Laura, if we actually are seeing more than eight hundred thousand headed towards a million doses produced domestically each and every week from here on in in Australia, then that’s the game changer for vaccine rollout in our country. And by some reports, we’re one of only about 13 countries in the world in a position to manufacture their own vaccines. So we’re in a very fortunate position.


Laura Jayes: -doses that have actually been rolled out. One hundred million, we are a fraction of that.


Simon Birmingham: And the US started with the manufacturing capability. They rushed, obviously, through emergency procedures around safety. We gave Australians the surety that we went through the normal processes of the Therapeutic Goods Administration to get the approvals there so everybody in Australia can have confidence. We’re in a much more fortunate position than the US or Europe or most other parts of the world, both in having not only the potential to manufacture vaccines here, but also not having the emergency crisis, pandemic situation of overflowing hospitals, crisis health systems, more lockdowns and shutdowns that are happening in parts of Europe. So we’ve been able to go through the right process, but I think people will say the numbers exponentially increasing over coming weeks as we now have that surety of domestic supply that can be distributed across Australia and allow us to open up from what has been a highly targeted vaccine rollout in the first few weeks, targeted to those frontline health workers, quarantine workers, those most vulnerable to ultimately now starting to reach into a period where all older Australians are eligible and pretty soon it won’t take long before we get to the stage where all Australians will be eligible.


Laura Jayes: Just finally, on the economy there’s some good data around today. Jobseeker payments are down by four point four billion since what you expected in MYEFO. Are you redirecting that money or are you banking it?


Simon Birmingham: It is really good news today to say that the year-to-date budget position to the end of February is twenty three billion dollars better than what the government had expected. But we do need to remember, it’s still a one hundred and thirty four billion dollar deficit in year-to-date terms, and that is an enormous deficit in anybody’s language. It’s the biggest deficit in the nation’s peacetime history as a share of the economy. And so we want the deficit to be as small as possible while doing whatever is necessary to support the continued economic recovery. And it is the fact that three hundred thousand people have come off of JobSeeker in recent months, which means we’ve got lower social welfare costs, more Australians in work, and therefore more Australian taxpayers creating the circumstance that generates that improved budget position. And that’s certainly where our focus continues to be. How do we keep that jobs growth going? That has already got us back to the point where there are more Australians in work now on the last employment figures than they were in March of 2020. That’s something that pretty much nobody else in the world, in developed economies has managed to succeed in doing and getting their employment and economy to recover to that level. But the targeted support announced today for cinemas yesterday for arts and entertainment, the other week, tourism and aviation, all of that is showing that we’re keeping a firm eye on those sectors, doing it tough as we transition past JobKeeper into that more targeted assistance program.


Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham, thank you.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura.