10.22am | March 24, 2021




SUBJECT: Senate Estimates.
JANE NORMAN, HOST: Well, on a very busy Monday I'm joined today by the Labor Senator and frontbencher Jenny McAllister, thanks for joining me. And we’re also joined by Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg. Thank you for your time. Let's get straight into the revelations from estimates today, we'll return to the Royal Commission in a moment, has the Prime Minister misled Parliament by effectively, you know, not revealing that he knew that the  Gaetjen’s inquiry had been paused, which I think he was trying to set out what he knew at the time?

SENATOR ANDREW BRAGG: Now, obviously, I think he was trying to set out what he knew at the time. Now, obviously, the estimates process has revealed that there is more information about the statement or the request to the Federal Police Commissioner. And that's been set out today in estimates. And so, I can't add anything more to that because I've been watching proceedings like, you know…

NORMAN: If Phil Gaetjens account is correct, he told the Prime Minister on the 9th of March that he was pausing his inquiry because of advice he received from the AFP Commissioner. Then last week in question time, the prime minister was asked on several occasions about the status of the report. And at no point did he tell the parliament that the inquiry had been paused? Why?

BRAGG: Well, I mean, the inquiry is not concluded and…

NORMAN: but it is on pause, which is a significant step in the inquiry.

BRAGG: My understanding is that the Prime Minister made the statement to the house that there would be an inquiry, the inquiry is continuing. But it hasn't concluded.

NORMAN: But isn't it, isn't it for transparency sake, when you’re asked about the status of an inquiry, wouldn't it have been incumbent on the Prime Minister to tell the parliament what he knew? And if we're to believe Phil Gaetjens, what he knew was that the inquiry had been paused? 

BRAGG: Well, I think he's made the point that the inquiry is ongoing. And the inquiry, I assume, will be concluded at some point after the police matter is concluded. Now, my understanding is that the police are looking at it as a criminal matter. So, they've taken statements from MS Higgins and the like. So, it's very difficult for me to make any further comments about that particular process.

NORMAN: Okay, well Jenny McAllister, do you believe, does Labor believe that the Prime Minister has misled the house here?

SENATOR JENNY MCALLISTER, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMMUNITIES AND THE PREVENTION OF FAMILY VIOLENCE: It's quite difficult to explain, isn't it? Because here is the Prime Minister, asked directly about the inquiry, given multiple opportunities to present relevant information to the parliament and choosing not to do so. And I think it goes to the issue that women are so angry about. These are serious issues. They deserve a serious response. They ought not be treated as amere political problem to be smoothed away where possible. I think the least that Australian women could expect from the Prime Minister on this question, in this week in particular, is transparency. And I don't think he's met that test.

NORMAN: So, what happens now?

MCALLISTER: Well, it's really up to the Prime Minister to explain his decision to withhold this information from the parliament, but more importantly, to withhold it from the Australian people and from Australian women. If he knew that the investigation had been paused, why didn't he? Why not just be up front about it? It is consistent with an overall pattern of not dealing with the issues that have been put before him seriously or dealing with the substance of them. This is not a political game. This is a serious issue that people are looking for answers, and full transparency.

NORMAN: To be fair to the Prime Minister, he was asked a lot about, you know, whether Phil Gaetjens had interviewed certain people, he wasn't asked directly, what is the status of this investigation? I mean, does that give him any kind of leeway here that he was answering the questions presented to him? He wasn't asked whether it had been stopped or paused.

MCALLISTER: I think the Prime Minister, if he'd exercised good judgement, would have realised that the fact that the inquiry has been a paused, paused it seems like for nearly two weeks, he would have assessed that as being a relevant issue that Australian public needed to know about. He may have wished to provide an explanation for why, but why conceal it? I go again to what the Australian people expect from him. Now, Australian woman have said very clearly that they are tired of sexism, of sexual harassment of sexual assault. They don't like it at all, but they can see this culture present in this building and they are looking for leadership. And at the very least, that leadership will require transparency from the Prime Minister.

NORMAN: And we'd like to be expecting an explanation or statement from the PM today to tell people why he chose to withhold this information, if indeed Mr Gaetjens account is correct?

MCALLISTER: Well, I'll leave it to my colleagues in the other house to pursue that. But I think it is in the Prime Minister's interest to provide that kind of explanation. And I'd be providing it sooner rather than later.

NORMAN: Andrew Bragg. It's been such a sensitive issue at Parliament. We had thousands of women and men protesting outside the house just last week. I mean, just in that sort of context, knowing how sensitive it is, do you think these passes the pub test that a person at home might think, oh, we know, maybe the PM had a reason for not, you know, telling the House about the status of the inquiry last week?

BRAGG: I think we've taken these issues very seriously; they are serious issues. And what we're focused on is trying to improve the culture in this building and in the parliamentary offices around Australia. And that is what the Jenkins review is designed to do. I hope parliamentarians take the opportunity to consult with their staff. And they put in submissions, I'll be doing that. I think it's very important that we use this opportunity and this avenue that's now been created by the bravery of these women to get some serious change in these buildings. Now, people say, Well, what is change? I think it is having a more respectful environment where people feel that they can go to work and not be harassed, quite, quite simply. And so, I'm optimistic that we can use this process quite constructively.

NORMAN: I want to ask you a bit about that Commissioner Jenkins inquiry in just a moment, but Labor has been accusing the government in terms of the Brittany Higgins case of a cover up. Do you think that what we have learned today only adds weight to that? If nothing else, the perception. 

BRAGG: This is now a matter for the police, so I'm not sure what I can say about it. I mean, that is why we're having this lengthy discussion today about what was said at Senate Estimate. So, this is a matter before the police, I'm not sure that I can really add to that other than people have tried to be as clear as they can be, as far as I can see. And I think that this particular review of this workplace is something that we can control. And we can improve the standards on

NORMAN: If we can just set aside for a moment what the PM knew and when he didn't. I just wanted to ask you about the fact that the AFP Commissioner told Phil Gaetjens that he was concerned that there was what he described as an “intersection” between these various inquiries. And what do you think about that advice?

MCALLISTER: Look, I wasn't watching the evidence I saw the clip just now. I think the main issue is however Mr Gaetjens chose to respond to that advice, it ought to have been made public and the government ought to have been transparent about it. For more than, for nearly two weeks, the public has believed that investigation is occurring into who knew what and when in the Prime Minister's office. That is not true. And I think that was incumbent on the government, to be honest and upfront about that.

NORMAN: Should Phil Gaetjens have just released a statement? I mean, he has an entire media team at Prime Minister and Cabinet.

MCALLISTER: That’s a question for Mr Gaetjens, but ultimately, the responsibility stopped with the Prime Minister. He commissioned the review. Mr Gaetjens provided the information to him that he was putting the inquiry on hold. If we believe his evidence to Senate estimates today, the responsibility for managing that information ultimately lies with the Prime Minister.

NORMAN: Okay, well, I want to move. We do have other inquiries, which are about to be launched, like the Kate Jenkins inquiry into the, you know, culture of this place. Some commentators have noted that after last week's protests, it does seem like there is a movement right now. And it is a real moment in time, but it’s unclear exactly what women are calling for, in many ways. So, in terms of the Kate Jenkins inquiry, what do you hope will ultimately be achieved by that?

BRAGG: Well, I'm not seeking to speak for anyone. But I've received an enormous amount of feedback about these issues. And I think there are many cop-outs. I mean, people like to say this is a unique workplace. It's not, people like to use excuses around alcohol, long hours, and being away from home. That is quite commonplace in many other occupations around the country. So, I'm looking to eliminate cop-outs. As part of the way that I will engage with this review and look at what are some substantial concrete things that we can deploy, that can improve this workplace. 

NORMAN: Do you think I'm family friendly hours? Do you think getting rid of alcohol from offices? Are they are the kinds of recommendations that you think might help?

BRAGG: I've consulted with my staff about these things, because I do want to actually talk to them about what they think we should put in the team's submission.  I have strong views about the lack of a family friendly hours, but I think that there are broader issues. I do think one thing I would like to see come out of this is to see an independent, HR like, institution, because there is no independence for people when they are dealing with the employer, like they would be in a corporate. And so, I think that would be an important change. And that would allow people to be freed from this desire or the current problems where people have to choose between their job and making a complaint.

NORMAN: And what about you Jenny McAllister? What sort of concrete steps you hoping might be taken with this inquiry?

MCALLISTER: The Jenkins review is a really important opportunity to hear from the women in this building. And actually, not just the parliamentarians or even the parliamentary staff, but I think the other women and men who work in this building who might have ideas. There are thousands of people working in the building, and we all interact with one another. It's really important that we hear from all of the staff in the building and everybody has the opportunity to make a contribution in a way that is safe for them. I’ll just make this point though. I think that what Australian women are looking for is something bigger than a reform to the workplace that is Parliament House. I think Australian women know that this government does not have a particularly good track record in putting women's issues at the centre of their policy agenda. We are still waiting for a response to the Respect@work report that Kate Jenkins delivered which went to all Australian workplaces. We don't see any real urgency in tackling domestic and family violence, which is the portfolio area I'm responsible for. We have an Office for Women that appears to be routinely shut out of every major economic decision that is made that affects women. And we have a Minister for Women that speaks very infrequently on women's issues, and appears from her own evidence, not to be deeply involved on many of the questions that we expect her to be involved in, including questions of tax and superannuation. My concern is that the government is not serious about equality for women. And what Australians are looking for is a government that is. 

NORMAN: Alright, we'll just before we go, because Question Time is approaching, at least in the house, Andrew Bragg, our last word to you on this in response to Jenny McAllister’s comment.

BRAGG: Well, I think we are taking these issues seriously. And the question for what we do beyond these walls of this building are the most important issues. And that is what I think we need to think more carefully about what else we can deploy. But something that is within our preserve and is within our control is how things run in this building. And I think this should be a model workplace, we should be aiming to be a model workplace.

NORMAN: Well, Andrew Bragg, Jenny McAllister thank you for your time today.