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23 March 2021




SUBJECTS: Workplace culture in Parliament House; Gaetjens inquiry; Porter allegations; Labor Code of Conduct. 
KRISTINA KENEALLY, DEPUTY LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY: We have just heard a mea culpa from the Prime Minister, an acknowledgment from Scott Morrison, that for the past five weeks, he simply hasn't got it.

He apologised for the language he used. He apologised for not understanding the frustration, the anger, and the rage of Australian women.

And I acknowledge the Prime Minister's mea culpa. It is five weeks too late, but it has arrived.

And while I acknowledge the Prime Minister's understandable love for his family, for his daughters, his wife, his mother - I never questioned that - the question that Australian women are asking of this Prime Minister is that you say you've heard us, so now, what are you going to do? Because it is one thing to say that you hear the women of Australia. But it is another thing to act.

If the Prime Minister is serious about his commitment to make Australia a better place for women, here's some places he could start. He could start by introducing quotas to the Liberal Party to ensure that there are more women in senior positions, that there is a woman in every room in this government where a decision is made, where there's more than one woman in those rooms.

He can start by ensuring that victims of domestic violence have access to paid parental leave. He can start by delivering affordable childcare to give Australian women the opportunity to work five days in a week and not lose money. That would improve both productivity and women's economic situation. It'd also be good for kids.

He could start by restoring the cuts to the legal services that have been made for women who are seeking to escape domestic violence.

He could also start with one of my personal requests and provide and ensure that the private sector provides paid parental leave for mothers of stillborn babies. He could take real action to fix the gender pay gap and to ensure that women do not retire in poverty.

He can fix the superannuation gender gap. See the thing is, it's not just words that we need to hear from the Prime Minister. It is also actions.

There is a reason that the Australian women went out and marched in the streets. They are demanding justice. And so,  when the Prime Minister talks about hearing what women were saying at those rallies, he could also start by ensuring that his government speaks to Brittany Higgins. It is extraordinary that Philip Gaetjens has not spoken to Brittany Higgins.

It is extraordinary that a Minister in this government - Linda Reynolds - called Brittany Higgins a “lying cow.” And it is extraordinary that there are reports of the Prime Minister office were briefing out against Brittany Higgins' loved ones while she was trying to get justice.

These are all matters the Prime Minister could deal with today. And so while I acknowledge his mea culpa, what I say on behalf of Australian women, is we want to see what you're now going to do. The last point I'll make of this before I go to questions: I think it is legitimate to ask how much the Prime Minister really has learnt from his last five weeks of apparently listening to Australian women. Because within moments of his heartfelt remarks, he then turned around and in response to an entirely legitimate question from Sky News’ Andrew Clennell, the Prime Minister threw out there on the table, an allegation of a sexual harassment or assault that he apparently knows about at News Corp? Well, my question for the Prime Minister is, did you have the woman's consent to just throw that out on the national table? On what basis did you think it was your job to tell that woman's story? It was extraordinary for the Prime Minister to do that. 

And it suggests to me that perhaps he needs to do a little bit more listening to Australian women. 

I'm happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: What do you think of the fact he knew about that allegation within News Corp, but not the one about Brittany Higgins that allegedly occurred in his minister's office?

KENEALLY: What do we see yesterday in Senate Estimates that the Prime Minister's personal fixer Philip Gaetjens has shut down the inquiry into who knew what, when about Brittany Higgins' alleged rape in the minister's office? This is a prime minister who cannot even get a straight answer to the parliament about the conduct of that inquiry, or indeed, ask his own staff what they knew about Brittany Higgins' alleged rape. Now it does beggar belief that somehow the Prime Minister of Australia doesn't know about an alleged rape of a staffer in his own government which took place in his own minister's office just metres from his own, but somehow knows something about an unspecified allegation or something that might have happened at News Corp. And how in the world does the Prime Minister think it is okay for him, if he does know about such an assault, to talk about on national television? 

JOURNALIST: Do you question his sincerity in those comments - you said that they were heartfelt but then moments later seem to make public some kind of allegation at Sky. 

KENEALLY: I'm sure the Prime Minister's intentions were good. My point is, I wonder how much he has really internalised and learnt. If he can stand before the country and say he's heard Australian women talk about their frustration that they're not listened to and respected, that they are not able to access justice, that they face, harassment, assault and rape. But yet, then, he decides it's up to him - in response to a question he simply doesn't like - that he finds politically inconvenient - to throw out there an allegation that he apparently knows about. And then, quite frankly, to look like he was almost threatening the reporter with that allegation. I think the Prime Minister needs to come out and make clear and explain himself. And explain himself particularly to Australian women who need to have confidence that when he says he's heard them, he really has. I think there's a legitimate question there.

JOURNALIST: Labor staffers came forward today to say they don't feel safe in this building. One said that she was told by a member of the Labor Party that to stay silent if she ever had a complaint because it would cost her career. Have you ever told anyone in the Labor Party…

KENEALLY: Oh God no, of course not!

JOURNALIST: What do you say to people in the Labor Party who are telling staffers this? 

KENEALLY: Look, I have spoken about this on the weekend. This is a societal problem. And I'm not so stupid or naive to think that the Australian Labor Party would be immune from the types of problems we're seeing across the country. But let's be clear, there's been a significant amount of work done over the last few months to ensure that we have the right policy settings for the party in terms of harassment, and bullying, and to ensure that we have a robust complaint process, where complaints can be brought forward in ways in which women will be listened to with respect, they will be afforded dignity, and where confidentiality can be provided, if it is required.

JOURNALIST: Women still don't feel safe.

KENEALLY: My point is this - I am utterly distressed when I read the reports on that closed Facebook group about about experiences women are having, they should not be having those experiences in this parliament. My role as a senior woman in this party is to do as I have done. One, to ensure we do have those robust processes in place. And I acknowledge the work of Sharon Claydon, Tanya Plibersek, Don Farrell, and others, to ensure that those processes are there. But to two, to provide the support and the advice for women who want to come forward and have their stories heard. And that is what I have done.

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister said today, the Prime Minister said today he's going to speak Coalition staffers. Is Labor prepared to do the same thing with all its staff members? 

KENEALLY: In fact, we've already done that. We've had multiple meetings, since the Canberra Bubble story aired last November, and the consultation and processes that we've undertaken, have been done with staffers. 

JOURNALIST: So they obviously don't feel like they have an avenue in all places to say something - they still feel cowered.

KENEALLY: And as I've said, we have delivered this new process and we are now  implementing that to ensure that staffers understand it and are aware of it and feel that they have avenues to bring those complaints forward. And I have made it abundantly clear in my personal and public communications, that I'm here to support those women. 

JOURNALIST: Do you think those processes are enough, just to say there is a complaint process? Because women are certainly saying they still don't feel safe even with that process.

KENEALLY: Look, as I’ve just said, we are now in the implementation phase. What I would say is that we all have responsibilities, we all have a responsibility. And when I think about the culture that is here in the parliament, it is one that does need significant change. But this is not just about parliament. This is not just about parliamentarians, it is about our staff. And this is about all this staff in this building. Let's just think about the fact that the staff who would have confronted whatever happened after those lude videos were filmed would have been cleaners, a lot of them are women. Let's think about the fact that there are journalists, Hansard reporters, a whole range of women who are in this building, who are also subject to this culture. Just think about the fact that 110,000 women across Australia came out and marched because they recognised in the stories that were coming out of Parliament, their own experiences. We have a societal problem, we are all responsible for this. I'm not, in any way, trying to suggest that the party I represent is immune to it. 

But this isn't about casting stones, or hiding from the truth, we need to confront the truth. And what I would say to the Prime Minister, given his mea culpa today. He has started to confront the truth about what is happening in his own party and in his own government. He has started to confront the truth about what is happening for Australian women across this country. He needs to start acting, he's the Prime Minister. Cultural change starts from the top. Real and lasting change starts from the top. I have listed some of the concrete policy measures he could take. But there's more than just policy. It is leadership. And that is what Australian people are looking for.

JOURNALIST: And your response as well to the pivot on the Prime Minister's rhetoric in regards to Christian Porter and seeking advice from the Solicitor General?

KENEALLY: I hadn't seen that part of the…was that in the…

JOURNALIST: He's now seeking advice with regards to Porter. He previously said it wasn't necessary.

KENEALLY: The decision as to whether or not Christian Porter is a fit and proper person to stay in the cabinet is one that sits entirely with the Prime Minister. It beggars belief that the Prime Minister received a dossier, a detailed dossier about the allegations against Christian Porter, allegations Christian Porter has denied. And the Prime Minister didn't read them. It beggars belief that the Prime Minister did not seek legal advice. And we heard yesterday in Senate Estimates and from the AFP Commissioner, that contrary to what the Prime Minister said in question time, the AFP Commissioner did not brief the Prime Minister on the detailed contents of that dossier. By the AFP Commissioner's own evidence, he told the Prime Minister there was an allegation that it related to sexual assault. But he did not provide any of the details to the Prime Minister on dates, times, places, people. So it does raise a very legitimate question, how could the Prime Minister claim he raised the matters with Christian Porter?

It is far too late in the process but it is a welcome move that the Prime Minister is now seeking this legal advice. The Prime Minister, however, cannot dodge his responsibility to explain to the Australian people, why Christian Porter remains a fit and proper person in the Prime Minister's judgment to sit in the Prime Minister's cabinet. What is Christian Porter's job going to be exactly when he comes back next week. And what are Australian women supposed to do? Just shrug and say oh, okay, he's back. I guess we'll just overlook the fact that there have been these serious allegations that nobody has really examined. And when I say that nobody has really examined them, I acknowledge that the police don't have a clear avenue to take this to prosecution, given that the alleged victim has died. But that is not now the question before the Prime Minister. It is not one of criminal guilt or not, or innocence. It is a question as to whether or not, to his judgment, Christian Porter can remain in cabinet as the first law officer of the land and is a fit and proper person to have that role. Just as it is the Prime Minister's responsibility to determine whether Linda Reynolds, the Defence Minister, is a fit and proper person to sit in the cabinet. I don't see how her position is tenable. She called the alleged rape victim, Brittany Higgins, a lying cow. She has, by Brittany Higgins' own account, presided over an office that pressured Miss Higgins to choose between justice and her job. If you watch the Four Corners episode last night, there are so many serious questions that now sit about who knew what, when, and where the cover-up lies in relation to Miss Higgins' alleged rape. These are decisions the Prime Minister needs to make. 

JOURNALIST: You said you're not blind to the possibility of inappropriate conduct within your own party. If someone made a disclosure to you what steps - about a colleague of yours - what steps would you take?

KENEALLY: It's a hypothetical. And let me first just say that these are complex matters that are not easily dealt with, by hypotheticals. But in general, my first concern would be for the person themselves:  did they have appropriate support, psychological support, social worker support, whatever was required in terms of their personal support? And that might also include legal support. Secondly, did they have the sufficient support to make their own decision about how to tell their story and whether to tell it? Thirdly, were they aware of the processes, the complaint processes that exist within the Australian Labor Party, so they were aware of the options that they had. And lastly for them to know that I had their back. That they would be supported to tell their story. And when I say I have their back, as a senior woman in this party, part of my job is to ensure that what happened to Brittany Higgins doesn't happen to women in my party. Where they feel that they have a choice between seeking justice or keeping their job. 

Thanks, everyone. Thank you.