By Tanya Plibersek

01 December 2021



SUBJECTS: Jenkins Report; National Cabinet; Government’s treatment of universities; Religious discrimination; Fran Kelly.
FRAN KELLY, HOST: Tanya Plibersek welcome back to Breakfast.
KELLY: The Prime Minister said yesterday he found the statistics in the Jenkins report appalling and disturbing, but he wished he found them surprising. Were you surprised?
PLIBERSEK: I have been disturbed by some of the material in the report, but given that we know, across the broader Australian community, about 40 per cent of Australian women have been sexually harassed at work in the last five years, the scale of the problem hasn't really surprised me. Also, I mean, I've been around a while and I've seen some pretty disturbing things over the years.
KELLY: Well, let's talk about that because Kate Jenkins says bullying and harassment have become normalized in Parliament House. Does that chime with what you've witnessed yourself in the 23 years you've been sitting there in the House of Reps?
PLIBERSEK: I certainly have seen some pretty bad behaviour. But Fran, I guess what I would say is that we need to take action to make sure that Parliament House is a safe workplace - particularly for our young staffers, a lot of them are quite young when they come to work here - and we need to make sure that not only is Parliament House a safe workplace, but that every Australian workplace is safe. Whether you're a parliamentarian, or a librarian, or a cleaner, or a factory worker, or a bus driver, or a naval cadet, or a medical intern, you should be safe at work.
KELLY: Absolutely agree but also, as Kate Jenkins reminded us, Parliament House, and you and I both work there and know, it's a particular workplace with particular employment conditions and particular sort of attitudes too I think, based around power and political competition. In that time over the 23 years, where you've seen some pretty terrible things, what have you tried to do about it?
PLIBERSEK: Well, this is one of the things that makes me so sad and frustrated Fran, I do feel like I've been working on this for a long time to improve our culture and I feel just sad and sorry that I haven't fixed it for the young women who have been working in this place more recently. What I've tried to do over the years is make sure that in the Labor party we see more women elected, and I would say that is the biggest single change in my time here. We're at about half-half now with female representation and that has had a profound, a profound impact on our culture in the Labor party. It has made a huge difference. I've also really admired Fran, the work of female journalists reporting on these issues more recently. I don't think the reporting of these issues would have been as good or taken the sexual harassment, the culture here, as seriously if we didn't have so many terrific women working in the media. But most particularly what I'd like to say is this change has really been driven by the courage of young women like Brittany Higgins, in the case of the Parliament here, but also across the Australian community Saxon Mullins, Chanel Contos, these young women, Grace Tame obviously our Australian of the Year, standing up and saying enough is enough, and I'm so proud of them. And so pleased to, in any way I can, be able to support and amplify their voices.
KELLY: Well, in terms of Parliament House where would you start? Would you start with the drinking culture we were just discussing there with Kate Jenkins? Would you start with the hiring and firing practices, the code of conduct, the behaviour in the chamber? What do you think is the most important, or the key, the most dangerous practice in the place perhaps?
PLIBERSEK: I think a focus on better representation of women, not just in the House of Representatives and the Senate, but across staffing, across senior positions in staffing, would make a difference. The other thing that I think is absolutely critical here is better support for members of parliament and others to be better leaders and managers of people. Kate Jenkins has given us 28 recommendations. It's a very substantial report. We're very grateful to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner and the people who've worked with her, and all of those who've made submissions to this Inquiry. We're taking our time to read through the well over 200 pages -
KELLY: Should they all be accepted, those recommendations in your view?
PLIBERSEK: I think the recommendations are very sensible recommendations, but we will work through them with our staff. I mean, one of the things that we have learnt is that the experiences of people like me who've been around for a while, are relatively senior, are not the same as the experience of the young staffers and we need to be listening to them and guided by them in the implementation of any recommendations.
KELLY: I think though that, given the extensive work done by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I think a lot of people listening would like to hear politicians like you saying ‘Yes, we will commit to these recommendations’.
PLIBERSEK: Yeah. And Fran, as you know, Kate Jenkins’ last report, Respect @ Work, which looked at sexual harassment across all Australian workplaces - Labor was very clear that we accept every single recommendation of that report and would fully implement them in government. And that goes to things like putting a positive duty on employers to provide a safe workplace, it goes to having gender equality as one of the objects at the Sex Discrimination Act. All I'm saying is, we got this report yesterday and we are very grateful to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, it makes a lot of sense to me, but we will go through it with our staff.
KELLY: More than, you talk about a lot of people come there and they don't have any experience in leading a team of staff, for more than half the people working in Parliament have experienced at least one incident of bullying or sexual harassment, or sexual assault. Some of the descriptions given to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner are disgusting, like this one says 'the MP sitting beside me leaned over he grabbed me and stuck his tongue down my throat, the others all laughed. It was revolting and humiliating.' Do these men come to Canberra with no respect for women or does Canberra change them into this?
PLIBERSEK: Little bit of column A, little bit of column B, I think. This is a widespread problem in every Australian workplace. So, there’s no surprise that it’s also in Parliament -
KELLY: Yes it is but -
PLIBERSEK: But I think being away from home, many people have identified in the report that this notion that you're away from home, it's like, some people have described it as being like they're on school camp and so on. I think that's really true. I've witnessed that myself over the years. I think people think, you know, they can get away with all sorts of bad behaviour, and it's encouraged and laughed at quite often. I've seen that over the years too.
KELLY: What should happen to an MP hat puts his tongue in a woman's ear or his hand up a woman's skirt?
PLIBERSEK: Well, I'm not a lawyer, but to me that's a sexual assault. It’s pretty clear that that's just not on. It's not just sexual harassment. That is sexual assault.
KELLY: Okay. Can I just ask you about some other issues now? The national cabinet has agreed not to implement any further lockdowns or border closures in the wake of the new Omicron variant. As the Prime Minister said, it's important not to be spooked, but there's a two-week pause on allowing skilled migrants and overseas students into the country. You're the Shadow Education Minister, do back that response?
PLIBERSEK: Look, I back following the medical advice. This is a new variant, we have to watch it quite carefully. Nobody wants to go into widespread lockdowns again. We need to do everything we can as a country to avoid that sort of social and economic hit. People are just so tired of the lockdowns and the restrictions. So, whatever the medical advice tells us we need to do to keep Australian safe, we should do. On the broader issue of overseas students, I think it is incredible that we have a government that has presided over billions lost from our universities - 40,000 staff so far have lost their jobs, including 7,000 researchers, and this government has refused to act to help those universities. In fact, they have changed JobKeeper laws three times to make sure that Universities missed out. The hit not just on universities - campus closures, course closures, jobs lost - but the hit on the broader economy, an estimated $10 billion hit on our broader economy, is simply unacceptable and I am still waiting for an adequate response from this government on the devastation -
KELLY: And will Labor be making a promise on this, to restore this?
PLIBERSEK: We'll be making our university policies clear in coming weeks. But, I've got to say to you, Fran for a government that pretends to be interested in Australian jobs and productivity, the hit to our universities immediately, those 40,000 jobs losses, but the hit to our productivity in the future, the brain drain, it just blows my mind.
KELLY: Okay, just finally one listener has written in saying ‘I'm one of Tanya's constituents, could you please ask her why Labor has decided not to oppose the Religious Discrimination Bill. Why is it okay for LGBTQI people to be collateral damage in their pursuit of the religious vote?’
PLIBERSEK: Well, it's absolutely not okay for anyone to be collateral damage. We've received the legislation. It's going off to a Parliamentary Inquiry, we will be examining it closely. No one should be discriminated against on the basis of their religion, but greater protections for people from religious discrimination should not result in fewer protections for any other group in our community.
KELLY: So, Labor will not support overriding anti-discrimination bills of the states?
PLIBERSEK: We've been very clear that we don't want to see greater protections for some come at the expense of fewer protections for others.
KELLY: That's a no then? You won't?
PLIBERSEK: Well Fran, we're looking at the legislation. It's detailed legislation, we're looking at it through a parliamentary inquiry at the moment, but the principle that we will adhere to is we will not accept greater protections for some coming at the expense of other people in our community. And look, if you want to talk about LGBTI community in particular, the Prime Minister said in 2018 that protections for students in religious schools could be done in two weeks. That was 2018, we are in 2021.
KELLY: Tanya Plibersek. Thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.
PLIBERSEK: Fran, can I just before you go Fran. Just for one minute. I want to say thank you so much for being such an incredible interviewer. Every day you do a number of detailed interviews on incredibly diverse topics. You're always across your brief, but one of the things that I admire so much is you've risen to the top of your profession and you're still a decent human being. And I think we all need a bit of that in Australian life at the moment, that you can be great at your job and a great human being. Good luck.
KELLY: Thank you very much for those comments. Thanks Tanya. Thanks for joining us so frequently on Breakfast.
PLIBERSEK: It's a pleasure.
KELLY:  And congratulations on being the longest serving female MP in the House of Representatives. That's a milestone. Tanya Plibersek is Shadow Education Minister.