10.24am | February 19, 2021




SUBJECTS: Sexual assault allegations; Review into workplace culture at Parliament House. 

HOST: So, what will it take for a change in what seems to be a broken culture when it comes to the treatment of women. Senator Jenny McAlister, Shadow Assistant Ministers to the Labor Leader in the Senate and Shadow Assistant Minister for communities and the Prevention of Family Violence. She is also a member of Emily's list an organisation, which provides networks for women to gain and political experience for selection in the Labor Party. And she joins us live now. Good morning.


HOST: Thanks for your time. As someone who has long advocated for greater representation and equality for women in politics. Firstly, what is your reaction to the assault allegations that were heard this week by former liberal staffer Brittany Higgins?

MCALLISTER: I have felt both incredibly angry and incredibly sad. And talking to women here in the building and women outside the building, I think that's a common reaction across the community. You know, this is a workplace, but it is a workplace with a special significance. And I think that Australians had hoped for better.

HOST: I mean, what message, you're saying you've been speaking to female staffers in the building, what message do you think this sends to women and men, particularly younger women who might be looking at a career in politics? I mean, looking at Brittany Higgin’s remarks earlier this week, she said it was her dream to work there.

MCALLISTER: Brittany Higgins has been incredibly brave in coming forward and telling her story. And it's a reminder to all of us that when women tell their stories, we need to listen to them. The most important thing that we can do now is listen, listen carefully to the things that she is telling us. And also, to the complaints that have been made by other women who've come forward in recent years. 

I want women and young people to come to this building. And I want them to know that they will be treated respectfully, that they'll be valued for the professional contribution that they make here. And I want them to know that their work will be valued on its own terms.

HOST: Do you fear that a story like that, this week has sent the opposite message?

MCALLISTER: I think what matters now is our reaction. We have to work now to build a culture that is truly respectful and inclusive, and where complaints are handled appropriately. And Australian women, not just young women, all Australian women need to see all of our leaders here in the parliament, take that challenge seriously.

HOST: Okay, so when we look at solutions, there’s talk this morning about either having an independent complaints body so in other words, people working in federal parliament can make reports outside of party and government mechanisms, would you support something like?

MCALLISTER: What we need now is an independent review of the workplace culture here in the parliament and electoral offices. And the Labor view is, that to make sure that the review has the confidence of the public and the confidence of parliamentary staff, that review should be truly independent with bipartisan oversight. That means that we could bring in external expertise to give us advice about what a truly independent complaints process would look like. 

HOST: I understand you want a review, but in the end, do you think that there should be a complaints body that is above and beyond the government of the day.  It should not be handled by the Department of Finance, for example, or the Prime Minister, it should be independent.

MCALLISTER: I'm open minded about how we deliver this. But the complaints process needs to be truly independent, and it needs to provide unbiased advice not affected by politics, to the complainants and it needs to focus on their wellbeing, on supporting those complainants when they are making the very difficult decision to come forward with their story. I don't think that is all that's required by the way. We actually need to look at workplace culture here. Because complaints processes only work if they're supported by a positive culture that supports women for the contribution that they make, not judges them by how they look, or any other criteria, that truly supports women and their professional lives here.

HOST: And when we look at cultural change Senator, let's look at the Labor Party. You have a quota system to boost parliamentary representation. Do greater numbers necessarily lead to changes in attitude?

MCALLISTER: I actually think they do. It makes a real difference to have more women at the table, more women in senior roles, more women in the Shadow Cabinet. Labor has been on a long journey and we are now at the point where nearly 50% of our parliamentarians are women, and 50% of our Shadow Cabinet are women. I think that is incredibly important in ensuring that women's perspectives are truly considered when we're making decisions about this and many other policy issues that affect Australian women.

HOST: We were talking about sending a message a moment ago. In my view in any other public sector workplace, I imagine would have a process and a system for dealing with an allegation as serious as this I mean, given the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins took place two years ago in Parliament House. What does it say in your view about due process and transparency in political offices and Departments?

MCALLISTER: I think what women who are speaking up are telling us is that these processes are not good enough. Women are telling us that they did not feel supported. They were not clear about how to make a complaint, and they feared for the ongoing security of employment and their careers. That is not good enough. I will observe that sexual harassment is a problem right across the Australian community. It's a problem across Australian workplaces. And we need to do better, but parliament has some very particular obligations. This is a place of special significance for the whole Australian community. And we have to be a model workplace, we have to do better, we have to be the best.

HOST: And I’ll note Senator that the Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised to fix the system. He says there'll be a cultural and structural review of the way ministers and staff are held to account over claims of harassment. Your thoughts on that?

MCALLISTER: Look, our view is that this review should involve a broader group of people. And my understanding is that Ms Celia Hammond has been asked to work with coalition MPs on their culture. And the Deputy Prime Minister - the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister has been tasked to lead a review of processes. Honestly, I think we can do better than this. Labor is calling for an independent review, led by an external person that is overseen by a bipartisan group of parliamentarians. And that review should allow staff who work here to contribute, to have their voices heard, to provide their opinion about what would make a safer workplace. The Prime Minister has said he'll consider Labor's views. And I think he should, because I think our real leader at this point in time would be reaching out to every person in this Parliament and involving them in a process of cultural change that is important for the whole country.

HOST: When you mentioned it should be independent. Who do you,  I mean, obviously you’re of the view that it shouldn't be left to politicians to carry out their own investigations of wrongdoing by MP’s or staff. Who should be doing this then? Who is that independent body in your view?

MCALLISTER: There are a range of eminent people, men and women who’ve conducted reviews about workplace culture right across this country, and any number of them could be drafted to conduct an independent review that the whole Parliament could have confidence in.

HOST: Okay. Thank you very much for your time this morning. Really appreciate it.

MCALLISTER: Thanks for having me on.