ABC NEWS AFTERNOON BRIEFING WEDNESDAY, 24 MARCH 2021 - National Wrap with Patricia Karvelas

ABC NEWS AFTERNOON BRIEFING WEDNESDAY, 24 MARCH 2021 - National Wrap with  Patricia Karvelas Main Image

24 March 2021


SUBJECTS: Senator Abetz; Prime Minister’s press conference; Christian Porter; Channel Ten story.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Well,  let's head south to Canberra. Liberal Senator Eric Abetz has denied slut-shaming former staffer Brittany Higgins, who was allegedly raped by a colleague in the office of the Defence Minister Linda Reynolds.  The Independent Speaker of the Tasmanian parliament, Sue Hickey made the accusation under parliamentary privilege. Ms. Hickey claims Senator Abetz expressed disgust that Brittany Higgins was drunk and said she could have posed a risk to national security. Now to be clear, Eric Abetz denies this and he's put out a statement to say that.
Kristina Keneally is the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and Government Accountability and joins us this afternoon. Welcome to the programme.
KARVELAS: What do you make of the comments Tasmanian Speaker Sue Hickey claimed under parliamentary privilege that Eric Abetz made about Brittany Higgins - the comments that he denies?
KENEALLY: Noting he did deny them, but they are abhorrent comments and let me just reflect Patricia, that there is a repeated pattern of behaviour from this government when it comes to Brittany Higgins' brave revelations of the alleged rape she experienced in the Minister's office.
And that repeated pattern is this: that she felt pressured to choose between her job and pursuing justice. That she was called a lying cow by the Minister for Defence, Linda Reynolds. That the Prime Minister hasn't even bothered to ask his own staff who knew what and when about the alleged rape. Indeed, the Prime Minister's personal fixer, Philip Gaetjens, has stopped the inquiry into the Prime Minister's Office.
Coming on the heels of all of this, I am quite concerned that the Prime Minister, today in Question Time seemed to just accept Senator Abetz's denial. And again, Patricia, this goes to a repeated pattern of behaviour: the Prime Minister didn't read the dossier of the allegations against Christian Porter - accepted Christian Porter's word for it - didn't order an inquiry.  Hasn't, it would seem, read the words of Ms. Hickey - just seems to accept Senator Abetz's words for it. You know, and if the Prime Minister is true to what he said yesterday, that he has heard women, maybe he should start looking and reading the words of women and reflecting and asking questions before he acts.
KARVELAS: Does the fact that Sue Hickey has been disendorsed by the Tasmanian Liberals affect how her claims are being viewed?
KENEALLY: She has brought these claims forward under parliamentary privilege. I note that after Senator Abetz's denial, she has repeated the claim so she stands by them and says she has had contemporary conversations with others about what she says Senator Abetz said. I think we need to hear more from the Prime Minister on this.
These questions of the treatment of women, the behaviour of Government MPs and staffers, in to contribute to this poor culture in Australia, towards the poor treatment of women. This all sits with the Prime Minister. You know, cultural change and leadership starts at the top. And so again, I come back to the point. Has the Prime Minister read Ms. Hickey's allegations?  Or is this another case of allegations from a woman that the Prime Minister is ignoring? Is the Prime Minister going to talk to Senator Eric Abetz? Is the Prime Minister going to make a clear decision as to whether Senator Abetz remains a fit and proper person to be on the Parliamentary Joint Committee for Intelligence and Security?
KARVELAS: Eric Abetz, as we say strongly denies these comments, and labeled them defamatory. So what do you think should happen now? Are you saying that instead of accepting his denial that Scott Morrison should start some sort of process to ascertain whether this happened?
KENEALLY: Patricia, I'm not here to tell the Prime Minister how to do his job. He should know how to do his job. But the Prime Minister stood before the nation yesterday and in emotive terms said he had heard that women felt they were not listened to. He had heard women were frustrated that their stories of assault, harassment and rape were not taken seriously.
Well, if the Prime Minister wants to assure Australian women that he really has heard them, maybe he could start by taking seriously, the serious claims that were made in the Tasmanian Parliament today by a woman and her horror at what she says were the words of Senator Eric Abetz. And, look, the Prime Minister may decide after all that, he's quite comfortable with Senator Eric Abetz. That will be his decision.
But quite frankly, for him to stand in the Parliament today in Question Time, and just dismiss outright that these claims that had been made without him even reading it, without him even talking to Senator Eric Abetz, just says to women once again, this Prime Minister isn't listening to women's allegations, women's stories and women's experience.
KARVELAS: What do you make of the Prime Minister invoking his own gender in his apology for raising a false claim of sexual harassment, saying, and this is his quote from this morning in a radio interview, he said: "blokes don't get it right all the time"?
KENEALLY: First of all Patricia, I got to say things are not going well for the Prime Minister when he has to at 11pm issue an apology, apologising for his earlier apology. You know, nobody gets it right all the time. But we have had five weeks of this Prime Minister, not listening to women. He didn't attend the March for Justice. He didn't hold an inquiry into the allegations around Christian Porter. He didn't act. He - and he still hasn't acted - on making a determination as to whether Linda Reynolds or Christian Porter remain fit and proper people to serve in his Cabinet.
This is a Prime Minister, who at every turn, has turned his back - as he did to Tanya Plibersek in the Chamber - has turned his back to the cries of women for justice in this country. So he can, he can, you know, spin whatever emotive type language he wants to hear. I'm not interested in what the Prime Minister says or in the tone in which he says it. I am interested in what he is going to do. So if this Prime Minister wants to start getting things right when it comes to women, he can start by assuring that Christian Porter does not come back as a part-time Attorney General with a full time salary.
KARVELAS: Well, let's go to that because, do you interpret Scott Morrison's refusal to answer a question about the future of Attorney General Christian Porter as a sign he's walking away from him? Because he's waiting on advice, he says, and we know that advice is in relation to ministerial standards.
KENEALLY: This is a prime minister who for weeks, for weeks, has insisted that Christian Porter is an innocent man, those are the Prime Minister's words. So this Prime Minister is responsible for whether or not the people in his Cabinet are fit and proper people. He makes that determination.
KARVELAS: And is he not now going through that process? Is that what you interpret him to be doing, based on the answer that he's provided in Question Time?
KENEALLY: I tell you what, what we see from this Prime Minister in Question Time: he misleads, he's tricky, he's sneaky. Patricia, it's quite possible, he's just trying to keep all his options open.
This is a Prime Minister who was spinning out that the issues around women and justice and the March for Justice was just something that affected tertiary-educated women. This is a Prime Minister whose office –
KARVELAS: Well, he never really... He never said that. But, but there was reporting that the Government viewed that...but he’s never been quoted to say it…
KENEALLY: This was spinning that was going on by the Government. And there was also reporting going on that this Government has been briefing out against Brittany Higgins' loved ones, as an attempt to discredit her. So look, this is a Prime Minister who has been hoping for weeks that this issue will just pass by, and he will not have to address it.
Yesterday, he stood up and tried to address it. And boy, it didn't take more than 11 minutes before we saw the real Scott Morrison come out. Angry, self-righteous and petulant, casting false allegations against News Corp. And let me be clear here, Patricia, he doesn't need to just apologise to News Corp - although it was outrageous what he did in that media conference - but he weaponized sexual assault.
And I don't think that this Prime Minister has yet comprehended that by weaponizing sexual assault, he has actually discouraged women to come forward. Because when women in this country, see the most powerful man in the land weaponize a story of sexual assault, they lose confidence that they will retain control of their story. They lose confidence. They feel they will be disempowered, once again, by the men, powerful men when they make those complaints.
KARVELAS: Senator are you saying that when, that if women were watching - not everyone watches all the press conferences like you and I - but women who, who sort of heard the Prime Minister say this, you're saying that you actually think it's had a tangible consequence? Do we know that?
KENEALLY: I think that there would be women both here in the Parliament and around Australia, who would have just put their head in their hands and said: here we go, again, because he weaponized sexual assault. He thought he knew a story about sexual assault. He used it in a media conference to defend and deflect from a difficult political question to himself. He just threw it out there in national television, without even considering whether the woman who might sit at the -  who made the complaint - had given her consent for that to happen. He just carelessly weaponized it.
And yes, Patricia, I have talked to so many women who are the victims of sexual assault, and one of their greatest fears is that by making a complaint, they lose control again. And they lose control of the process that men can use their complaints in this way. In this vindictive, weaponized way. If we want to be serious about women in this building, in Parliament, whether they're staffers or media or whoever, coming forward with their complaints, if we want to be serious about saying to women across Australia, your complaints and allegations will be listened to with respect, dignity and confidentiality, where required, it starts from the top and it starts with the Prime Minister who does not carelessly or thoughtlessly throw an accusation of sexual assault.
KARVELAS: And his apology doesn't remedy that situation?
KENEALLY: His apology is rightfully to News Corp, because let's be blunt, he smeared every employee of News Corp when he did that. His apology is right to News Corp. But I just think he hasn't really reflected on the impact his words have had. He is the Prime Minister. Of course, his words have impact. Of course they do. And quite frankly, if he really wants us to believe that he gets it then he needs to demonstrate that.
KARVELAS: Well, he said "blokes get it wrong". Is it a case of just  "blokes get it wrong"?
KENEALLY: This Prime Minister has gotten it wrong.
KARVELAS: The Government says Parliament's focus should be on delivering change for women. In fact, the Prime Minister took a question from Zali Steggall, who is my next guest, and and he said, you know, he wasn't, he's not going to be the kind of bloke who, who says what's going to happen, he wants to listen to women. What do you make of that approach?
KENEALLY: Well, he could start by listening to women who want paid domestic violence leave. This government has refused. In fact, they had for two years, a policy -- three years – a policy to make women fund their own escape out of their own meagre superannuation savings. They've dropped that now, and call me a cynic, I don't think they would have done that except for the March for Justice and the issues that are currently being discussed.
Well, now they could make clear, and they could provide 10 paid domestic violence leave days. Because you contrast the position of women escaping domestic violence with that of Christian Porter. The proposition still today is that Christian Porter comes back as a part-time Attorney General on a full-time salary, with the time in this space to pursue his defamation case against the ABC. Wouldn't it be great if women in this country had paid domestic violence leave when they have to go to court to escape their abuser? There are some concrete things this Prime Minister could do because women have made clear they want them done.
KARVELAS: Just finally, will Labor push for a Senate Inquiry into those claims raised by that Channel Ten story, including that sex workers have been procured for MPs?
KENEALLY: I am flabbergasted that the Prime Minister seems to be so unconcerned - it would appear - that sex workers are being brought into Parliament House, procured by staffers for MPs. Now yesterday, he made the startling claim, and with no evidence, that this only related to a former minister. Today, we hear from Channel 10, there are reports from Channel 10 that these claims do relate to a current member, or current members of Government.
You know, come on Patricia, there are serious issues here that relate to security, that relate to blackmail opportunity, that relate, frankly, to use of taxpayer dollars. These are taxpayer-funded staff that are doing this procuring, allegedly, that relate to ethics and morals in this building. So, and by that, I mean, the Parliament is not a place where Members should be using prayer rooms and other rooms, for sexual activity. That's just not on. With anybody. And so quite frankly, the Prime Minister's lack of interest in this, is very strange, and his kind of shrug-the-shoulders, and if you have information come forward, he's the Prime Minister. This is his government. He should be looking into this today. He should be making referrals to relevant authorities, whether that is the AFP, or his own department. I don't understand why he has just remained silent on this.
KARVELAS: Kristina Keneally, thank you so much for joining us.
KENEALLY: Thank you.
KARVELAS: Kristina Keneally is the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and Government Accountability.