Transcript - ABC Afternoon Briefing [17 February 2021]

February 17, 2021

SUBJECT/S: Alleged assault at Parliament House; Victoria’s lockdown.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: I want to bring in my political panel this afternoon, Liberal MP Tim Wilson and Labor MP Anne Aly. Welcome to both of you. And we're going to begin with this statement from Brittany Higgins, beginning with you, Tim Wilson. What do you make of Brittany Higgins’ statement released this afternoon? She's saying that the Prime Minister is victim blaming. Is that what he's doing here?

TIM WILSON: Well, I think it's disturbing if she feels that way. My understanding is the Prime Minister sought to be supportive in the discussion around this as possible and to make sure that all proper processes are followed. Obviously, she's made further statements which don't align with that. And, you know, it's up to her ultimately to decide how to pursue this matter. But I would have thought that the best thing in these circumstances is to go through the police to make sure there's a proper investigation. Those people who are responsible, are held accountable.

KARVELAS: Anne Aly, victim blaming is some really strong language that she's used in this statement. Is that what the Prime Minister's been doing?

ANNE ALY: I think we need to listen to Ms Higgins on this. She certainly feels that the Prime Minister has not taken her case very disturbing and very serious allegations of an incident that occurred right here in Parliament House. If she feels that that's not being taken seriously. And look, I've been myself rather perplexed, by the way, in which the Prime Minister handled it, the fact that he had to seek empathy from his wife and relate to it only as a father of daughters. I understand that kind of language. But I think that that language doesn't have a place in Australia, in modern day Australia, where it does pertain a lot to the way in which we see victims of rape to their believability, to the way in which we show empathy and sympathy towards them. His choice of words weren't, I think, optimum choice of words. I noted that several times he said the situation which she found herself, she did not find herself in that situation. She was put in that situation.

KARVELAS: Tim Wilson, why are we still having this conversation around sexual assault like this? I mean, we've known that this is a risk. Why is the Parliament so obviously unprepared to deal with these sorts of situations?

WILSON:  Well, we shouldn't be having this conversation, Patricia. The reality is, if you have a workplace in the 21st century, I mean, throughout all time, but certainly not in 2021, an environment where somebody turns up to the workplace and find themselves in a vulnerable situation, particularly in this most heinous and extreme one, it is a problem about the culture. Now, there's obviously a review that's been put in place by the Prime Minister, which is looking at the full support mechanisms that staff and MPs need. But it is completely unacceptable. Nobody is arguing otherwise. And I want to I want to stress just how I think most people in this building, and I'm sure Anne is in this camp, I know I am and I know the staff in the Goldstein office and in many other offices have frankly felt sick, weak that this could have occurred and particularly in this day and age. And that's why so many of us are committed to strong action and that proper accountability is taken. And for those people who are responsible are held to account.

KARVELAS: Do you think Tim she should, sorry Anne I’m going to get back to you but just one this one very specific question, she was denied CCTV footage. Should she have access to that footage of her own, the crime that happened allegedly to her?

WILSON:  Well, I think that needs to be made available as part of a proper investigation. Now, I don't know what the rules are around strict access to footage, but one of the benefits, should she choose to go down the pathway for pursuing through the police, that sort of content should absolutely be available as part of that investigation.

KARVELAS: Anne Aly, what are your thoughts on this?

ALY: Yeah, I want to go to the question of culture here, Patricia. And, you know, you only need to look around. The fact is that the culture here is that political parties protect themselves. And, you know, today in Question Time, the Prime Minister talked about Ms Higgins having a choice. It's not a choice when your choice is to lose your job or go to the police. That's not a choice. It's not a choice when it's made very clear to you on a number of issues that protecting the political party and the reputation of the political party is the ultimate, the ultimate game here. And it's across political parties. That's the issue with the culture here at Parliament House. There is too much of a protection racket going on that victims of a range of behaviours and some of the most in this case, one of the most heinous behaviours do not feel safe, do not feel comfortable, do not feel that they have a choice to come out to pursue the proper channels, which should be to go to the police and report an alleged assault.

KARVELAS: Well, Tim Wilson, on that issue in her statement just released, as I say, within the last hour, she says "a current senior staffer to the Prime Minister and my former chief of staff refused to provide me with the access to the CCTV footage from that evening", and, this is the key bit for me too, "continually made me feel as if my ongoing employment would be jeopardized if I proceeded any further with the matter". That's disturbing, isn't it?

WILSON:  It is disturbing. The reality is, if somebody has been a victim of such a heinous crime, what they should receive is support. Now, I am not in any way contesting what is said, obviously not party to any aspect of it. But if people feel in that situation or if they fallen into that situation and that they should be receiving every bit of support that they need, again, ultimately, it's up to Brittany to decide how she wishes to pursue it. But the - I would have thought the best way is to pursue it through a formal police investigation so that people are held to account and so that access to footage, access to documentation, access to phone records and whatever is necessary to establish.

KARVELAS: I think that’s right but she said that this staffer, this this person made her feel like she shouldn't pursue it. I mean -

WILSON: And that's wrong. If she felt that way, that is wrong.

KARVELAS: It should ring alarm bells though, shouldn’t it? This should be ringing so many alarm bells that that she felt lent on like this.

WILSON: Well, absolutely. If this is in this situation, no one should feel that they put in that set of circumstances where they don't feel like they should be able to take forward. Nobody's career should be jeopardized. And if people feel that way, it should ring alarm bells. Now, this is precisely what the Prime Minister in the process, the Prime Minister's established is seeking to look into, because if that situation presents itself, it is completely unacceptable and it should ring alarm bells. It should be fixed and it should never have occurred in the first place.

ALY: Can I just make a quick point here. We can have the processes in place and we can have the policies in place. But until we change the culture, until we change the culture, that they are useless. Because if Ms Higgins feels, as she says, that she was compelled to not go to the police because it would have meant losing her career, losing her job, that that's what needs to change. That culture needs to change. And, you know, that's a that's a big task. That's a big task for a place like this. Walk around here and have a look here at the culture here. If you feel that it's in the air, we've got a big challenge ahead of us. And I know I'm with Tim on this. I know that that this has touched every member of the House, regardless of political party. And I think we need to put our hands together, work collaboratively in moving forward and ensuring this never happens again.

WILSON: I couldn't agree more.

KARVELAS: Yeah, I mean that I'm sorry to keep talking about this story, but I find it just so upsetting that some young woman who is looking forward to a political career working in one of the biggest, most successful political parties in the country would now feel like that is over after this this heinous alleged violation. And Tim, are you concerned that this sends a chilling message to other women about their participation in politics?

WILSON: I'm absolutely disturbed by the message it sends out to other women or anybody else who wants to participate in public life. The purpose of public life in this country should be to advance the interests of the nation. People have obviously diversity of views about how to do that. But people should want to come because they feel it's a safe, supportive work environment as part of doing service and delivering service to their country. And if we're deterred from the best and brightest, those who have things to contribute because of such horrific crimes, then that is a disservice not just to the individual, but to our country. And that’s why Anne is right, we need to work together to address the fundamental problems and challenges, the culture that exists that allowed this situation to occur. And we should work together to make sure that it never, ever happens again.

KARVELAS: I've got to just call it. I was, as you both know, Canberra for eight years. I found it a really, really hypermasculine environment that was difficult to navigate. And I found all women find different ways to navigate it. It's not an easy place to navigate that space. Anne, is that still what it's like? Is it still a hyper masculine environment?

ALY: Yeah, pretty much. Pretty much PK, nothing's changed here. Look, I think having more women here really helps, but the power structures are very masculine power structures. I think it's going to take a long time to change. But I'm hoping that at least in my time here, by the time I leave here, I can leave it a better place for young women than how I found it.

KARVELAS: Tim, is that your reflection?

WILSON: Well, it is a masculine environment and it's at times, as we know, a very aggressive political environment. And I kind of always understood why that can be off-putting to people when you get heated debates about the future of the country and, of course, the institutions that support that. And Anne’s right, I mean, the more women we have in Canberra, the better it does to address those balances. But frankly, it's not just about it being a hypermasculine environment, about how we have people of all walks of life and all diversity to be able to inform this place so that it actually reflects the country. And when Australians look to their parliament, they see a country, a parliament and ultimately a country and a culture that reflects themselves.

ALY: And I think that is absolutely right.

KARVELAS: Absolutely it should reflect the country, there's no doubt about it. Diversity is a bigger story than just talking about women, of course. Anne Aly, Labor is calling for an independent review to be led by an expert outside the government, such as a former sex discrimination commissioner. Pru Goward is my guest later in the hour. Someone like her, would she be appropriate?

ALY: Yeah, I think so. Look, let me just say at the outset, I think the Prime Minister's choice of the member for Curtin, Celia Hammond, is a fantastic choice. She's a professional woman who's led these kinds of investigations in large institutions at the university, and she's perfectly capable. But I think for the integrity of it and to not put her in, in a position, it needs to be independent and somebody external needs to undertake that review. It's very, very difficult to turn the mirror on yourself, as I often say. And so objectivity and a sense of objectivity needs to be brought into this. And I believe that that's the way to do it.

KARVELAS: Tim Wilson, are you partial to this idea of an independent complaints body for staffer complaints that the crossbenchers are suggesting?

WILSON: Well, I don't want to prejudge the investigations being done by Celia Hammond, but and I share Anne’s comments supportive of her. But I think everything's going to be on the table to address these problems. And if that's what her pathway and her investigations come up with, I'm more than open to it for the completely self-evident reasons, because what we need to do is make sure that all people in this building, no matter what their position, no matter the elected or not elected, MP or staffer or senator or media as well, feel that they have a pathway to address any problems they face in the workplace.

ALY: And can I just say there, Patricia, the key here is that people need to have confidence in the process. And if that means that the process needs to be carried out by an independent body, then that's what needs to be done. Because as we've seen with Ms Higgins, if she does not have if a victim does not have confidence that her that her complaints are going to be heard and heard fairly, they won't be coming forward.

KARVELAS: Look, just final comment from you, Tim Wilson, because you're a Victorian, about Victoria lifting its five day lockdown, which was announced earlier today on the back of zero cases. Does it justify the lockdown that we've just had, in your view, that that, you know, clearly the lockdown has been successful, as the government says?

WILSON: Well, clearly, there hasn't been community transmission. Now, the role of the lockdown in achieving that. I think, frankly, is unclear. One of the best things it's done is testing and tracing amongst the population to make sure that if people have tested COVID positive, that they respond. But to acknowledge what the Victorian Government has said, they have said that they don't believe it's over, in fact, until I think it's next Friday, we're not going to get to the point of knowing whether we're at the end of the transmission period of the known cases that are already there. So I'm cautious about it. I'm cautious about the efficacy of the lockdown, but also cautious about making sure that Victoria keeps taking the practical steps to make sure that we can, since we have kept COVID out, keep it out of the community.

KARVELAS: Thanks to both of you for having this conversation.

ALY: Thank you, Patricia.

KARVELAS: Liberal MP Tim Wilson and Labor MP Anne Aly there.