PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
TUESDAY, 23 MARCH 2021
SUBJECTS: Parliament House culture, PM’s failure of leadership, Brittany Higgins.
CATHERINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INFRASTRUCTURE, TRANSPORT AND REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT: I want to start by acknowledging that there are many, many of our fellow Australians at the moment who are feeling very anxious about the floods that are occurring in New South Wales and Queensland and I do want to say to them we are, despite all that is going on in this place at the moment, we are thinking of them. Please stay safe and please follow the instructions of state emergency services and do not go into flood waters. We hope that as the floods recede that we all manage to get the time to think and to help as much as we possibly can. Well, last week and yesterday, nine times I asked the Prime Minister of this nation a pretty simple and basic question around accountability. We have on the one hand Ms Higgins, saying very clearly that she believes that while the Prime Minister has apologised to her in the public domain, at the same time staff from his office were backgrounding against her loved ones. I’ve asked the Prime Minister a few times now, nine times to be exact, whether he’s asked his staff if that’s true and then to tell us if it’s true. We saw yesterday the Prime Minister do everything he could to avoid saying “no I haven’t asked” and the reason it seems that he hasn’t asked is because he knows that it’s true. This is reflective of a much broader problem about accountability, about the culture of this workplace and about leadership. We are not going to get cultural change in this workplace unless we have leadership from the Prime Minister. What we saw yesterday was a complete lack of leadership. Politics as usual, trying to get out of a problem, trying to skate away from what was actually happening within the parliament, trying to get a political fix to what he sees as a political problem. This place needs significant cultural change. We’ve seen that from the awful revelations last night. This is about power, the abuse of power, how women are not feeling safe within this workplace, whether we’re members of staff, whether it’s security guards, or whether it’s members of parliament. We had rallies last week where we said enough is enough. It won’t be enough until the Prime Minister actually takes responsibility for leading this cultural change. The Leader of the Opposition is doing that on our side, it’s time the Prime Minister stepped up on his.
JOURNALIST: One coalition staff has already been sacked for committing a lewd act on the desk of a female MP, how would you characterise that behaviour and should anyone else in that WhatsApp group also lose their jobs?
KING: I’ll go to the last question first. Anyone who has participated in the activities that we saw in the media yesterday should lose their jobs. There is no doubt about that. But what I would say is, whilst this act is completely and utterly disgusting in and of itself, it is also contemptuous, it is contemptuous of women in this Parliament. To think that you can behave like that in a workplace, to do that on a female MP’s desk, your boss, shows absolute and utter contempt for this Parliament. And I think again, it goes to what is happening in the culture of this place. How do people respect women in this workplace? It is clear from those acts that there are men in this building who do not respect women, who do not respect their bosses who are women, who do not respect their fellow staff members and any other woman who’s in this workplace. If they don’t respect them here, what are they doing outside?
JOURNALIST: Were those allegations really as shocking as they should have been though? We’ve known about the prayer room for decades, presumably you might have heard some when you went to this place. Are these really shocking for a Parliament which has had a long described cultural problem?
KING: Well I think, you know, I’ve been a staffer as well, and those rumours have been about this building for a long period of time. I’ve never actually heard any factual evidence that they have occurred, they seem to have been around for decades and decades. But what we saw yesterday is concrete evidence of a pretty appalling and disgusting act and it’s not just a lewd sex act, to be honest, it is a violent act against women. That is what it is. To do that shows absolute and utter contempt for women in this place, and, you know, as shocking as it is, it goes to the problem of culture. You don’t get cultural change until you admit there’s a problem and you can’t fix what you don’t face. When you’ve got the Prime Minister of this nation doing what he did in question time yesterday, deliberately saying “I don’t know anything about this”, you know, “not to my knowledge”, deliberately not asking his staff “have you done this”, and then doing something about it. That is part of the problem. If you ignore the culture. If you have politics as usual with what’s happening here, then there will be no change.
JOURNALIST: With changes to protect confidentiality on victims, are you confident that women in this building now and even men would feel confident to come forward and, you know, explain or reveal if they were the subject or victim of this?
KING: All I can say is what’s happening on our, on our side of the aisle. We have a status of women committee, all of the women staff were invited to actually meet with Kate Jenkins, to talk with her and we have been encouraging women and men to come forward. I don’t feel confident, to be honest, that the culture on the other side has a similar process that is enabling people to come forward. I am worried about that. I do know that on our side we’re working very hard to try and create a culture where people are respected, where there is confidentiality in people coming forward and we are encouraging them to do so.
JOURNALIST: But there are Labor women who have complained on a Facebook page about the fact that the support isn’t there, what do you say to them?
KING: What I’d say to them is, please come forward and tell your story. We have put in place structures within the party where you can do that internally, there are a number of avenues for you to come forward. The difference, the very clear difference we’re seeing here at the moment is we’re not trying to pretend that there is nothing wrong with what’s happening within our party. There are instances and as you say the Facebook page has raised those, if there are instances we have to face them, and we have to bring them out into the light, and we have to talk about them, and we have to work out how to make sure they don’t happen again. But on the other side what we seem to be having, again, is a Prime Minister who wants to have politics as usual, try and get out of a political problem, twist and turn and not give me answers in the Parliament. It’s about how you deal with it that is actually the issue and I think we’re seeing a pretty stark contrast in that at the moment.
JOURNALIST: What about the fears that these women hold that they’ll lose their jobs? Obviously, that’s what happened to Brittany Higgins, she felt like she had to leave her job?
KING: Again, I think this is the issue. What are the consequences for the people who are engaged in these activities? What are the important processes that we now have in place through a code of conduct, through conduits for women to come forward to ensure that their stories are told and that they were put they are protected and respected in that process. We’ve worked very hard on our side of the chamber to put those processes in place and I encourage any staff to come forward with complaints, or to come forward to tell Kate Jenkins if they don’t want to go through a complaints process, so that we can actually get change. We can’t change things unless we know and understand what’s actually happened. I’m very proud that on our side of the house that we’re trying to make sure we get our processes and our house in order to do that. I don’t feel overly confident that the Prime Minister has really understood.
JOURNALIST: Just on your line of questioning to the Prime Minister in question time, it doesn’t look like you’re going to get a concrete answer on whether the PMO was backgrounding against Brittany Higgins’ loved ones because this Gaetjens Review has actually been on pause for almost a fortnight now. Is that disappointing?
KING: Well I think there’s two separate issues. The first is we’ve asked pretty simple for the Prime Minister to ask his staff, whether they did background against Brittany Higgins and then we’ve also got the issue that the Gaetjens Review, which was meant to be getting to the bottom of who in the Prime Minister’s Office actually knew about this alleged rape and then what they did about it. I think it was entirely appalling yesterday that we’ve had the Prime Minister of this nation basically tell the Parliament, “well Gaetjens will appear before Senate Estimates and will tell you everything that’s been going on here”, and then you had Gaetjens then basically say I’m not going to answer questions and I’ve paused this review. Again, as I said, this is about cultural change from the top. If you’ve got a Prime Minister that is prepared to engage in, you know, frankly, what has been a don’t ask, don’t know sort of culture, then how are we going to get change in this place? I think that goes to the heart of the Prime Minister’s character and how the Prime Minister is actually handling and dealing with these issues.
JOURNALIST: He said, though, that the reason he paused it was on the advice of the AFP. There were concerns that two investigations, the criminal investigation and this investigation may intersect, are those valid concerns?
KING: Well, I take you again to the evidence that we saw in Senate Estimates yesterday. You had the AFP saying that whilst they had advised that they had some concerns about it, you obviously had Gaetjens making the decision that he would pause it, but you then have the Prime Minister of the nation last week, who was told on March 9 that this investigation had been paused, you had him in the Parliament, using that investigation, knowing that it would have stopped, knowing that it had paused, as cover for not saying anything in the Parliament. It goes to the heart of what is the problem here and it is we have a Prime Minister who is refusing to face that there is a cultural problem in this place, that some of his people are the problem, and are part of that problem, and it is up to him to step up to actually fix it. Fixing it means you’ve also got to own it and there was no ownership for that by this Prime Minister yesterday and certainly not last week. Politics as usual for the Prime Minister is not going to change the culture of this Parliament. He needs to change.
CATHERINE KING – TRANSCRIPT – DOORSTOP INTERVIEW – PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA – TUESDAY, 23 MARCH 2021