ABC AFTERNOON BRIEFING
THURSDAY, 25 MARCH 2021
SUBJECTS: Indigenous deaths in custody; the need to change the culture of sexual harassment and entitlement in Parliament House.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Time now for my political panel. Liberal MP Jason Falinski and Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Charities Andrew Leigh, welcome to both of you.
JASON FALINKSI: Thanks, Patricia.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: G’day, PK. Great to be with you.
KARVELAS: I want to start on that actually, because I feel like there’s not enough emphasis on these issues. Andrew Leigh, why don't we see the kind of outrage, a minute of silence, a sort of emergency response at the national level when we have another black death in custody?
LEIGH: It really is a crisis, PK. More than 500 Indigenous deaths in custody since that report came down 30 years ago. I published research last year looking into Indigenous incarceration, which tracked the significant increase in the incarceration rate since the report came down. I'm working with the researchers at Deakin University to organise a conference in October in Parliament House on that Royal Commission Report and on precisely what needs to be done. It ought to be a larger feature of the Closing the Gap Statement. We ought to have justice targets as part of that because we know that incarceration is too high for Indigenous Australians, who are the most incarcerated people on earth.
KARVELAS: Jason, we know that these families who are grieving still for those that they've lost would like a meeting with the Prime Minister. We also know the Prime Minister offered the women who marched a meeting. They didn't take that opportunity, the private meeting. Should he be meeting with these families and taking this issue seriously?
FALINSKI: Look, Patricia, can I say that that's slightly unfair in what you just said. He takes this issue very, very seriously. It is just extraordinary that 30 years after this royal commission that we are still here. These statistics are not getting any better. The funding and the programs are in place. The recommendations were made clear. This needs to be fixed. This is just an extraordinary situation that this is still going on. I am sure that the Prime Minister will offer to meet with grieving families in the necessary and appropriate time. And I know that he will look forward to that and hearing about the impact that these deaths have had on these families, because it is through that, through that experience that we can drive change. But unfortunately, and I think Andrew’s research would show this, so much of this change needs to be driven at a state level. That hasn't happened. It is disappointing that there have been two deaths in custody in New South Wales, because for nearly two decades they had an excellent record. But it's just extraordinary that we still find ourselves here and that this is not moving forward. We are not advancing on this on this situation.
KARVELAS: Yeah, and what's worse is we have some of the remedies, but it seems to me we're not implementing some of them. So that is very frustrating to watch over and over and over again, and to see just how grief-stricken Aboriginal people are. Alright, let's move to some other issues, which are also can I say full of grief. The story, of course, around Brittany Higgins and now she's made this formal complaint, as you know Jason, to the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff. If it is found that the Prime Minister's office was backgrounding against her and her partner, a couple of things - should those findings be made public, and should whoever was doing that be sacked?
FALINSKI: So absolutely whoever, if it turns out that the Brittany's suspicion is true and it is backed up, then I have no doubt that that person will not be working in the Prime Minister's office. Having said that, there are obviously employment law considerations in this. So making those findings public has impacts that we need to operate within the law. But look, it is, it must be very distressing for her. She has now formally written to the Prime Minister, detailed the allegations. Those inquiries are underway, and the Prime Minister revealed in Question Time that he's also been given a private complaint and those inquiries have also been, are underway as well.
KARVELAS: Andrew Leigh, is that a sort of satisfactory answer in your view?
LEIGH: This Prime Minister runs a very micromanaged office. He knows what's going on there, and that's why Labor’s asked more than ten times in Question Time whether someone in the Prime Minister's office was briefing against Brittany Higgins. If they were, it's likely with the Prime Minister's knowledge. I spoke to a coalition member today who told me he thought it was impossible that the Prime Minister didn't know about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins just metres from his office when it occurred two years ago, just based on the way in which that office operates. Scott Morrison has handled this in purely transactional terms. That's how he's described himself in the past, as a ‘purely transactional’ Prime Minister. And that's meant that he's unable to transcend the day to day stoushes, to deal with the issue in leaderly manner in the way in which Paul Keating responded to Mabo, in the way in which John Howard responded to the Port Arthur massacre. He's made unfounded allegations against News Limited, and backed down only when he saw the front pages of the next day's newspapers. He's told women protesting outside Parliament House that they're lucky they won't be shot. I can understand why Ms Higgins is frustrated. I can understand why there are millions of Australian women who are frustrated right now. We know from Kate Jenkins’s inquiry that two-fifths of Australian women say they've been sexually harassed at work. The Prime Minister has had the report from Kate Jenkins for a full year and simply hasn't acted on her 55 recommendations, which would help to reduce sexual harassment in Australian workplaces today.
KARVELAS: Look, Jason, I heard the sounds you made there. It's true, just to be very accurate, the Prime Minister didn't say you're lucky for not getting shot. But he did frame some comments around other countries and the way protesters are treated, which was interpreted that way. So that's what he did there. But I suppose we know that the Prime Minister has mismanaged some of these issues, Jason Falinski. That's why he essentially provided the mea culpa the other day. He knows he's got the tone wrong, doesn't he? And is there any evidence that rather than just getting the tone wrong, we're going to see some action? That's what I feel is really lacking, Jason. Are we going to get some tangible change? More money for rape crisis centres, reforms to laws, sort of a national approach to trying to deal with consent education - they're the sort of things on the table. Are we going to see that action from your government?
FALINSKI: Patricia, no doubt, we will see that action from our government. By the way, I don't agree with national laws around consent education, but we're getting into the weeds there. But the Prime Minister has apologised. The Prime Minister has recognised that in some cases he has misspoken. In some cases, he has been taken out of context and he should have been more aware of how his words would be received. But at no point did he say that protesters were lucky that they weren't going to get shot. And frankly, I think it's just appalling the way that this situation that requires understanding and compassion at this time has been politicised by those who seek to make political gain from this. This is a serious issue. There are people seriously suffering because of our failures as a society. And the Prime Minister is trying to deal with that, imperfectly as he has admitted himself. But to have people piling on suggesting that he said something that in no way shape or form did he come anywhere close to saying is not making the situation better.
KARVELAS: Political - I mean, I suppose some of the complaints have come from women themselves though, Jason. Brittany Higgins feels pretty upset. I don’t know if she’s being political. She seems like she's been mistreated, as far as I can see it.
FALINSKI: Absolutely, Patricia. I mean, Brittany Higgins, in my humble view, has taken a selfless approach to this. The sensible thing for Brittany Higgins to do at a personal level would have been to go to the police and to make this complaint and to handle this through the justice system. Instead, she spoke out, I suspect at great personal cost. And in doing so she's lifted the lid on I think the experience of so many women and this issue has not got the attention it should have got. But let me be clear, this gets politicised not when people like Brittany Higgins make that ultimate personal sacrifice. This issue gets politicised when people suggest that the Prime Minister of this country said to women that they were lucky not to get shot when they protested. That is an outrageous comment to make. It politicises this issue and I think makes it more difficult for us to move forward.
KARVELAS: Well, he did mention what happens in other countries and that's how it was interpreted. And you know he reset on it, Jason, so I'm assuming he knew wasn't such a good look, because he did reset on it. Andrew Leigh, what do you want the government to do? How could they be doing this better?
LEIGH: They should implement the Kate Jenkins inquiry, [email protected]. They should put in place leave for victims of family violence. They should implement quotas within the Liberal Party, which have worked very effectively in the Labor Party - instituted 19 years ago, first at 35 per cent and then in 2012 to 40 per cent. They should restore the women's budget statement that was taken away when Tony Abbott came into office. And they should ensure that every member of their ranks is doing what they can to stamp out sexual harassment. We had a forum in Parliament this week organised with the Academy of Social Sciences that I co-hosted with Dave Sharma and Adam Bandt, and that was focused on the research around sexual harassment. We heard there from JaneMaree Maher about the importance of seeing this as a responsibility of men as well as of women. The important tasks for blokes like Jason and me are firstly to deal with our own behaviour, to make sure our behaviour is as good as it can be. Secondly calling out the misbehaviour of other men. And thirdly advocating for gender inclusive policies - which aren't just good for women, they're good for our whole society. Australia is a more productive, more engaged, more egalitarian society when we deal with sexual harassment.
KARVELAS: Jason, these revelations on Channel 10 the other day, which led to the Prime Minister the next day addressing the media on these issues, this behaviour which I’ve described as lewd - that's the word, but it's just about degrading women, it seems too. It's a sort of toxic sexist culture that exists. What's going wrong? What's going wrong in the people that you recruit to work for ministers and for MPs? You must be really worried about the calibre of these people coming in and the sort of things that they think, to think that that behaviour is acceptable?
FALINSKI: Well, Patricia, I can tell you that no one I know in this building thinks that sort of behaviour is acceptable in any way, shape or form. And once it was revealed, they were shown the door pretty quickly. So-
KARVELAS: Well, there are others that haven't been identified yet. So there are others that are probably walking around.
FALINSKI: I encourage them to come forward. And by the way, Patricia, I appreciate the focus on that particular act. But there have also been a lot of allegations made on Facebook about other political parties, and they've also been – and staff there. So this isn't just a problem that exists in Parliament House or in one political party. This is a problem, as the Kate Jenkins report [email protected] points out, is you know - one of the big, highest risk areas was of course in the law, for example. I mean, Parliament didn't even rate in her top four risk areas. Now we are getting a report into the work culture in Parliament House. There will be recommendations out of that. I cannot see a situation where the overwhelming majority, if not all of them, aren’t implemented straightaway. But that is, they’re the things we do. And Andrew is right when he says that the science is pretty clear that people like him and I have to behave in an exemplary fashion. We have to encourage other men to do so as well. And the more inclusive any workplace, any society is - I mean, it just makes sense. You are then getting the best and brightest from a broader pool of people, or as wide a pool of people as you possibly can get. So that is, that is something that we need to work on.
KARVELAS: Absolutely. Jason, you're absolutely right - I mean, really, it would be easier if it could just be confined to the Liberal Party or Parliament House, this kind of behaviour. But sadly, it's not confined there. It happens to women everywhere in this country, actual high numbers. So yeah, it would actually be easy to deal with if we could confine it that way. So let me ask the question to you, Andrew Leigh, that Facebook group where Labor women are saying these sorts of things have happened to them. What kind of response should the Labor Party be doing to try to actually get some outcomes for these women? I mean, are these women being approached and asked what kind of help can we give you rather than just waiting for them to come forward?
LEIGH: Patricia, I'd certainly encourage these women who wish to come forward to do so. And I think that we will be a better Labor Party if we have none of this behaviour going on within our ranks. And if that means losing people, having people having to step down, I think that's a good thing. We need to make sure we are model employers. We’re the party of the workers, we must be treating our workers as well as possible. One of the points that was made in the Academy of Social Sciences panel I mentioned before was that it's incumbent on managers to think about sexual harassment as being poor workplace performance, as you would think about it as any other issue of poor workplace performance. So if a manager hears a rumour that somebody is sexually harassing co-workers, don't wait for a complaint. Step forward and treat that just as you would any other issue of underperformance. And it's important too as we talk about these issues to recognise that for many of your viewers - I know this from speaking to my constituents - this conversation will be triggering for them and that 1800 RESPECT is there as an important first port of call for any anyone who needs to speak to someone.
KARVELAS: Absolutely right. We're also out of time. Jason and Andrew, thank you so much.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra