Interview – ABC RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly

Fran Kelly, ABC RN
Conduct in Parliament House

Fran Kelly: Well, the Morrison Government has vowed to sack any male staffers embroiled in the latest sex scandal to rock the Liberal Party. It's been revealed that at least four Coalition employees have been swapping explicit videos of their sexual encounters in Parliament House, including one lewd sexual act which was performed on the desk of a female government MP. It described, I think, last night on Ten News as a solo sexual act. One man has already been identified from that video and had his employment terminated - he's been sacked.

Industry Minister Karen Andrews is one of the most senior women in Scott Morrison's Cabinet. She's in our Parliament House studios. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

Karen Andrews: Good morning, Fran.

Fran Kelly: Male coalition staffers filming themselves in sex acts and sharing the videos. What does this say about respect for women in the Coalition? I mean, really, could you blame any woman for not really wanting to be part of the Liberal Party at the moment?

Karen Andrews: That behaviour is just disgraceful. It's unacceptable. Absolutely unacceptable. What does it say about a person that thinks that that's okay behaviour? What does it say about a group of men, it seems, who also thought that that was okay behaviour as they circulated pictures? Look, there clearly is an issue, not just only in this place, but in workplaces right across Australia where women are not given the respect that they deserve. And I think we're really at a point now where we have to address the issues within Parliament House, the issues within all parties and all representatives that are here - whether they be in Liberal, National, Labor, crossbench, we need to get together and address all of these issues.

Fran Kelly: I agree with you, Minister, that sexual assault and sexual harassment against women is not confined to one political party, not confined to one workplace. But I don't know there's many workplaces where this sort of behaviour is going on in the boss's office, and if it is, I think it would be picked up pretty early - it wouldn’t need to wait for a media report. I'm also told that the person who’s been sacked has been around the building for a while now - so it's not a kid. I mean, one staffer – this is according to Ten News, and there was video of it aired last night – performed a sex act on the desk of a female Coalition MP. As a woman in the Coalition, as a woman in the Liberal Party, how does that make you feel?

Karen Andrews: It makes me feel sick and it makes me feel angry, because that is just appalling behaviour. There were no words to describe just how bad that is, how disrespectful it is of the individuals’ boss, but that- the boss was a woman. What does that actually say about the lack of respect that that individual and others who have been circulating pictures have for female Members of Parliament?

Fran Kelly: And it wouldn't have to be Members of Parliament? I'm not saying that, and I know you're not either. But do you know who the offenders are? And if so, would you be prepared to out them? Should they be named?

Karen Andrews: Look, I think they should actually out themselves. I don't- those people know who they are. And if they had any integrity, they would be putting their hands up now as they walked out of this building, never to return.

Fran Kelly: Have you spoken to your staff to know- to make sure none of them have been involved? Or asked them if they know who is involved so that these people can be sacked?

Karen Andrews: I haven't had a discussion with them about that, but I will. I have had, really, a very open discussion about previous incidents that have happened here as well, and I've talked to them. I mean, their wellbeing is very important to me. And I think that we need to get to the bottom of what some of these issues are, and people need to be empowered to speak up. I mean, I can't remember how many times I've been in a situation where I felt that if I spoke up I would be called a bad sport, or I would be told I couldn't take a joke. I've had enough. And I want to see other women and other people empowered to speak up about behaviour that is just not acceptable.

Fran Kelly: And when you spoke to your staff - I think you're implying there's some female staff you've been talking to - what experiences did they share with you? And did they, did they indicate to you that they’ve been feeling that pressure not to be a bad sport? Not to be- speak up? To stand by while bad behaviour goes on?

Karen Andrews: Look, there was a little bit of that. To be honest, a lot of our focus - and it was the whole office, so there were male and females - the focus really was what support we might be able to provide to other people in various workplaces, or various offices here in parliament so that we might be able to help them. And I think that that's a really important thing to do. People know where they can speak and can speak safely. And if there's a role that I or my office can play in that, then we would be very happy to do that.

Fran Kelly: Is that why you're speaking out now? Because I was mentioning earlier to David Crowe in commentary that Coalition women, senior women, have been relatively silent around this treatment of- issue of mistreatment of women. I mean, people have spoken up in interviews, but not a lot of women coming forward and making really strong statements. Do you think these latest revelations have changed that? That senior Liberal women like yourself are not going to be silent? And how important is that for you to set the standard and give the example to female staff?

Karen Andrews: I've had a gutful. I have had an absolute gutful of poor behaviour towards women. And my conscience will no longer allow me to remain quiet.

Fran Kelly: One staffer has already been sacked. The Prime Minister is urging everyone, as was Simon Birmingham when we spoke with him earlier, anyone with further information to come forward and they will be sacked, too. But is that good enough? A, for a start, will sacking four people fix what's clearly a toxic culture within the Liberal Party, or the Coalition in Parliament House? And do you think it's good enough to say come forward if you have information? Should the Government be holding an inquiry into this now and go looking for it - separate to the Kate Jenkins' enquiry but within the Coalition, because we're talking about a number of staff here?

Karen Andrews: People need to be empowered to speak up in the first place. So I think that putting the call out to say, yes, you know, please speak up. You know, those people who are involved, just put your hand up now and just leave the building. Do it yourself. So that's a step. But I think that it's very important that Kate Jenkins is allowed to do her work. That people are empowered to speak to her, that they understand that there won't be any repercussions for them in saying to Kate what the issues are that they have experienced. But I'm sure, too, that there are many – well, I know that there are many good people in this building. There are many good people in workplaces right across Australia, and they are having their reputations tarnished by some pretty poor behaviour by others. And I don't think that's reasonable. And whilst we're dealing with the issues, whether it be within the Liberal Party or across parliament, we also have to look broadly at workplaces across Australia. And quite frankly, the march that has been held is not just a reflection, in my view of what happens in parliament, it's because so many women, in fact, almost every woman I know has a story that they can tell about how they have made to feel uncomfortable out on their own, how they have felt uncomfortable in a workplace.

Fran Kelly: I think you're right. I think the women who were protesting and I spoke to many of them outside Parliament House, and they're not there just to try and get the culture improved in Parliament House. They want a change in their lives, so they and their sisters and their friends and their daughters can walk the street safely at night. That's what people are talking about. But what kind of example does it give when this kind of behaviour is going on, in plain view it would seem, in Parliament House. And not only that, when we hear, for instance, as we did yesterday in the parl- in Senate Estimates, that the Head of Prime Minister and Cabinet investigating the allegations against Brittany Higgins- of rape against- sorry, Brittany Higgins’ allegation of rape within the Prime Minister's Office about who knew what. That Phil Gaetjens, the Head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, hadn't even asked Brittany Higgins her version of affairs. I mean, does that indicate to women that this is not rigorous, this is not being taken as seriously as it should be, and that the woman at the centre of this case is not being given the respect that she deserves?

Karen Andrews: Well, certainly, in the case of Brittany Higgins, the fact that she has taken up this this allegation, again, with the AFP and that she has spoken out, actually does need to be applauded. Good on her for speaking up about what her circumstances are and what the incidents that have affected her. I think we all need to be really careful, though, that the best chance of justice for Brittany Higgins and for any others is- should not be something that is dismissed or taken away from them, because there is so much commentary and speculation by others. So-

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] I understand that. But did you think it was strange when you heard that the Head of PM&C hadn't actually asked her for her version of events yet, so she could put- you know, tell him privately who she thought knew, who she'd spoken to, who she'd been told knew? Doesn’t that seem strange?

Karen Andrews: I don't know that the investigation was complete-

Fran Kelly: [Talks over] Well, it wasn’t complete. It’s paused, we know that.

Karen Andrews: Yes. So I don't want to pre-empt what actions Phil Gaetjens may have been taking. I don't know who he planned to speak to, but in any event, he wasn't able to bring that to a conclusion at this point in time.

Fran Kelly: Parliament is supposed to attract, you would hope, the brightest and the best amongst us, literally the potential leaders of the country and the people who work for them and have ambition to join them at some point. Do you have any insights into where this has gone so wrong? Why it appears to have been captured by a very privileged boys club, I think it's fair to say, and is a big part of the problem, there just aren't enough women within your side of politics, either as MPs. And that's undoubtedly true; the numbers are very small at the moment and in amongst the staff as well, that that could help change.

Karen Andrews: We need more women in this workplace. I mean, the parliament should be representative of the population. So, as a party, the Liberal Party, my party, needs to do more to attract women into winnable seats. And that has always been an issue.

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Should the Liberal Party finally, grapple with quotas.

Karen Andrews: I think we have to give it serious consideration.

Fran Kelly: Is there support amongst the women of the Liberal Party that you speak to, for that? For quotas now?

Karen Andrews: There's mixed views, and I can actually see both sides of this. I think that continuing the way that we have to attract women has clearly not been anywhere near as successful as it needs to be. The negative to quotas is that it supports a narrative that women are only there because they’re a number, and I don't ever want that to be the case for women who come into this place. I don't believe that that's true, but that is what women have to deal with - that if you get anywhere by way of a quota system, it is only because you are a woman. And I think that is grossly unfair.

Fran Kelly: [Talks over] But why would you- After seeing all of this that’s been going on within your side of politics in the last few weeks, why would you think any woman would think she'd get into the Liberal Party any other way, given the brokenness of the culture?

Karen Andrews: Well, I got into the Liberal Party. I got elected and had a fairly challenging pre-selection. So it is it is possible. But we clearly need to do more to attract women into the Liberal Party. And that work is ongoing. I mean, many of my colleagues speak to women all the time to approach them about whether or not they want to run for Parliament, and how they can be supported.

Fran Kelly: Karen Andrews, thank you very much for joining us.

Karen Andrews: Pleasure.

Fran Kelly: Karen Andrews is the Federal Industry Minister.