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17 February 2021




SUBJECTS: Sexual assault allegations at Parliament House; Federal Court decision on Biloela Family.

FRAN KELLY, HOST: …but that's at odds with the account given by the former staff and Brittany Higgins, who says that one of the Prime Minister's senior advisors was, quote, “checking in with her some months ago.” The Prime Minister has rebuked Defence Minister Linda Reynolds for failing to tell him about the allegation. But he denies the Government has a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy towards sexual assault.

[CLIP] SCOTT MORRISON, PRIME MINISTER OF AUSTRALIA: That is a very valid question, and I can assure you that there is no such policy. And I'm not happy about the fact that it was not brought to my attention. And I can assure you people know that, I can assure you people know that.

KELLY: The Prime Minister has established two inquiries, but he's also agreed to Labor's call for an independent review into the workplace culture of Parliament House. Kristina Keneally is the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs. Kristina Keneally, welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: The Prime Minister has told Parliament that his office was first advised of the rape allegation last week. He himself didn't know about it until the story was published on Monday, that doesn't match up with the recollections of Brittany Higgins. Who do you believe, Scott Morrison or Brittany Higgins?

KENEALLY: First, Fran, and let me just again express as I did the other day my absolute compassion for Brittany Higgins and my admiration for her courage and determination that no other woman who works in Parliament, or for the Liberal Party, should have to go through, not just the trauma, the awful trauma, of being attacked, the alleged rape that occurred in the Minister's office, on the Minister's couch, but then, as she describes it, the pressure as a political problem that she just go away and that she didn't feel supported to go to the Police. So I admire her courage and I send her our compassion. 

When we come, though, to what the Prime Minister said in Parliament yesterday. It is at odds with Brittany Higgins, it is at odds with her account of the involvement of two staffers from the Prime Minister's office, one who was the acting Chief of Staff to Minister Reynolds at the time. And another person, the Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, that Brittany Higgins describes as the Prime Minister's 'fixer'. 

Fran, can I also make this point though, the Prime Minister's statement in Parliament is also at odds with the Government's statement, it was pointed out following the airing of the interview with Brittany Higgins. I know you are on radio, but for your listeners, I'm holding the federal Government statement from earlier in this week, and it makes clear that back in March Ministers Reynolds' office became aware of a breach, a potential breach of the Ministerial statement of standards for staff and the Prime Minister's office was assisting then, was assisting Minister Reynolds and her office to determine what that breach was. Now, the Prime Minister cannot have it both ways, he needs to get his story straight here, either the statement that was put out earlier in the week that his office was involved back in March, assisting Minister Reynolds' office, is correct, or his statement to the Parliament is correct, that his office only knew this month.

KELLY: And why is it so important, why is this so important that if the Prime Minister didn't know or if Prime Minister was told, what's the issue here?

KENEALLY: Well, one goes to an issue of a culture of cover up in Government and, you know, Brittany herself spoke quite passionately and I think movingly and made such a significant impression when she described the way in which she felt she was pressured to go away, to not be a political problem that, you know, there was--and these aren't her words--but there was in effect, her description, an attempt to cover this up and to make it disappear. That now that's compounded by an ongoing culture of cover up, at best, it means that there is a culture of, don't tell the Prime Minister things that so that later on he can deny he knew them. 

At worst, what we have is a Prime Minister and a Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, who are compounding the trauma for Brittany because they can't get their stories straight. And because they continue to obfuscate and deny, not just Brittany but all women in this Parliament, all women across Australia, confidence that allegations of rape are taken seriously and are responded to with the appropriate steps, compassion and support for the victim and ensuring that the investigations, with Police and other authorities are followed through.

KELLY: Cover-up is a crime of intent. The Prime Minister and the now-Defence Minister Linda Reynolds have said, Linda Reynolds particularly, that she was concerned with the privacy of this young woman at the time and I presume the implication is they didn't want to go spreading it around because it was her story to tell, not, not others. Is it necessarily a cover up or is it perhaps a lack of understanding or again goes to the issue of culture, people not knowing and understanding how to support somebody and not knowing that to treat a crime like a crime means that the boss needs to know about it?

KENEALLY: Fran, it's extraordinary that any employer wouldn't know to treat a crime like a crime. It's extraordinary that any employer wouldn't understand that if an alleged rape happened in the employer's office on the employer's couch, that that needs to be reported, and the victim needs to be supported. It's even more extraordinary when we are talking about the Defence Minister of Australia, when we are talking about the Prime Minister's office, when we are talking about the Prime Minister himself. 

And can I say, Fran, it shouldn't take the Prime Minister of Australia to be the father of daughters to understand that rape is wrong and victims need to be supported, surely any human being, but particularly a human being that occupies the highest office in the land, should understand instinctively that if a woman alleges a rape, a sexual assault, in a workplace on them, in the employers office, on the employers couch, that needs to be taken seriously.

KELLY: You're referring to the comments the Prime Minister made yesterday when he told reporters that, you know, he had a conversation with his wife, Jenny, the other night she said to him, you have to think about this as a father first, what would you want to happen if it were our girls. He said Jenny has a way of clarifying things. Now what the Prime Minister did then was a much more emphatic response and outlined the two reviews and investigations, he was going to put in place, but do you think that comment from the Prime Minister which has attracted some criticism and you were critical of it there. Does it go to the culture in Parliament House where the political paradigm overshadows the personal cost? An answer might satisfy the political requirements - the Prime Minister did stand in Parliament before he'd had that conversation with his wife, he did apologise, he did say things were wrong. But it wasn't human enough, it wasn't emphatic enough, he wasn't treating this like the crime exactly that it is.

KENEALLY: Well that's, I think, Fran, hits the nail on the head. I look at that and I think, you know, how can you not be moved as soon as you hear of these allegations. I mean when I heard that they had that Minister Reynolds and her then-Chief of Staff had taken Brittany into the very room where the assault occurred, the alleged assault occurred and interviewed her there, I felt sick to my stomach, and I don't, I don't need to be the mother of a daughter to understand that. 

Fran, can I also just observe that this is now the only the latest of allegations and reports of bullying, harassment and now it's almost unbelievable were saying these words, an alleged rape in a Minister's office. And when the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison took over from Malcolm Turnbull, he stood up and said he was going to ensure that they, you know, in response to allegations of bullying of women in the Liberal Party, he was going to ensure that there was going to be a robust process for complaints to come forward. That didn't happen. It was an announcement and it didn't happen and what we saw this week, what we saw this week is a political fix again from the Prime Minister. 

I hope he's genuine, I hope he's genuine in taking up Anthony Albanese's offer to have a bipartisan approach and to result in an independent system for complaints to come forward from staff, because clearly what we have now in Parliament isn't keeping women safe, isn't keeping staff safe and, and the staff here that I talked to, don't have confidence in the system here.

KELLY: Part of the problem is the way the power dynamic works in Parliament House, which is each Minister's office is a sort of a feudal realm unto itself it almost seems. Labor's proposing as you mentioned there that bipartisan review of the workplace culture. Within the crossbench they've gone further, they want an independent complaints body to be established outside the remit of the Ministerial offices outside the Finance Department. Do you support that idea?

KENEALLY: I think there's merit in that idea and, again, if we had a bipartisan approach in the Parliament, we could, we could come together as parliamentarians, and as human beings and deliver a better system than what we have now.

KELLY: And so who is Labor proposing should conduct a review and independent review of workplace culture.

KENEALLY: Well, what Anthony and Tanya, our Shadow Minister for Women said yesterday is it should be an eminent Australian, someone who has skills and qualifications in this area and who is independent from the political process.

KELLY: Because this process is not unknown, I mean we've seen this go through in the High Court recently and calls for an independent body there. Are other workplaces have these in place, it shouldn't be that hard a job. Kristina Keneally is the Deputy Labor Senate Leader and Shadow Minister of Home Affairs. 

Can I just ask you before we hit the news. The Biloela Tamil family being held on Christmas Island, a court ruling yesterday prevented their, or gave them another reprieve, prevented their deportation back to Sri Lanka for now, but their faith is still in the hands of the Minister for Immigration, who has the right to grant a visa or not. The Government in the meantime says they will stay in detention on Christmas Island, what should happen now?

KENEALLY: Fran, this sorry saga should come to an end. Not only is the taxpayer spending $50 million to keep this family of four in immigration detention on Christmas Island, but there is a measurable cost to their health, their mental health, their wellbeing. And really, let's reflect that the Biloela community wants them home. The Biloela community has always wanted them to come home. Labor has been consistent in making clear that the Minister, with his powers, should intervene. Allow this family to come home and afford due process to their claims for protection.

KELLY: But as you say there, the Minister has the power to make a determination one way or another, Peter Dutton says the family's claims have been comprehensively assessed by multiple courts. Do you have any confidence that the Minister will change the direction the Government's taken on this up to now?

KENEALLY: Well my appeal here is to the Minister for Immigration, the new Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke, who comes to this with fresh eyes, who has the power. And who could today, make a decision to ensure that these two children, Australian-born children get out of immigration detention, that this family is returned home to their regional Queensland town, Biloela, that wants them back. And that we don't spend any more taxpayer money keeping a family of four who pose no risk to the community in immigration detention on Christmas Island.

KELLY: Kristina Keneally, thank you very much for joining us.

KENEALLY: Thank you.