ABC AFTERNOON BRIEFING
WEDNESDAY, 24 MARCH 2021
SUBJECTS: NSW floods; Eric Abetz comments; Scott Morrison apology on Facebook; quotas; possible reshuffle.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Now to my pollie panel. I’m joined by Queensland Labor MP Anika Wells and New South Wales Liberal MP Julian Leeser. Thank you to both of you for coming in. And Julian, on our top story, you’ve actually been up visiting the flood zone today. What did you see on the ground?
JULIAN LEESER, MEMBER FOR BEROWRA: I have been. Before I get to that Patricia I should just wish my condolences to the family of the man who has lost his life in Glenorie in my electorate. Cattai Creek is prone to flooding whenever we have floods and it’s a tragedy that he has died. We are fortunate in that this is the first death despite the devastation these floods have caused across the eastern seaboard. And we hope that there will not be any further deaths. But today I was at Wisemans Ferry. The first thing that I’d say about this is that the Hawkesbury is the most magnificent part of my electorate but it’s a very different Hawkesbury. It’s usually a green-y colour, today it’s the colour of brown coffee. It’s full of debris. It is full of furniture, and fridges, and containers. Seeing the way in which pontoons, and bridges and furniture have been affected in people’s houses. Seeing some houses completely submerged, other houses the bottom story submerged. We took supplies to people who had been cut off today, courtesy of some of the families in my electorate and the local RFS. And it’s wonderful to see the resilience of people in my electorate, many of whom were just pleased to be able to talk to somebody and tell their story. I think the real challenge that they will face isn’t actually now, it is as the waters recede and the cleanup operation begins. And I think people have a bit of a sense of that, that that’s coming. But I just want to thank all of those people who are giving their time, particularly with the SES, the RFS and the other emergency services who are doing a magnificent job right across my community.
KARVELAS: Let’s turn to parliament now and the Prime Minister is sticking by Liberal Senator Eric Abetz saying he’s completely denied the allegations made under parliamentary privilege that he slut-shamed a former staffer. Anika, what do you make of this? The Prime Minister says he denied it, didn’t happen.
ANIKA WELLS, MEMBER FOR LILLEY: And it’s just another day and another case of the Prime Minister instantly believing the bloke over the woman. We had Ms Higgins come forward and the Prime Minister has seemingly believed the alleged attacker rather than the Coalition staffer. When it comes to the Attorney General, the Prime Minister took him at his word rather than the allegations and evidence provided by the alleged victim’s supporters. He thought that was the end of the matter. And here we have some truly abhorrent comments being made by Senator Abetz, and being made out by the Speaker of the House in Tasmania no less, a woman of great standing. And again, instantly takes the bloke at his word. Tries to dismiss the matter. It is so discouraging if you are an Australian woman, eagerly watching the events unfolding in Canberra. To hear the PM say that he understands, he’ll try harder to empathise with the experiences of women. But then at every opportunity he doesn’t do that. He just believes the bloke.
KARVELAS: Julian is that what’s happened here? I mean should he just take Eric Abetz’s word? Shouldn’t he be trying to actually hear from this woman, Sue Hickey as well?
LEESER: Well I think Eric Abetz issued a very strong denial of this. But I think the broader point here is that we have reached a point in our culture, and in our parliament, and in our society where all people in public life, particularly those of us who are Members of Parliament need to create an atmosphere where people who want to bring complaints about sexual harassment are able to do so in a way that they can feel validated by bringing that complaint. That they feel will be believed in bringing those complaints. And I think that’s the broader point here that we have to focus on.
KARVELAS: No. I don’t know if it’s the broader point. Ok. That’s one point. And it’s a really important point. But my question is actually about one of your very senior, powerful Senators, alleged by this woman in parliamentary privilege, to have said the most, the most offensive comments about a women who alleges she was raped in Parliament House. To slut shame that woman. And just because he puts out a really strong denial, you know, is that really the end of it? Isn’t…doesn’t…you know, doesn’t the woman who says she heard him say this deserve to be heard or believed by the Prime Minister, Julian?
LEESER: Well…I’m…look the Speaker of the Tasmanian Parliament has made her comments in the parliament. Eric Abetz has issued a strong denial.
KARVELAS: But why just believe him?
LEESER: Eric Abetz, well…like him or dislike him, one of the things Eric Abetz is most known for around the parliament is being a very straight shooter. So for him to have issued that sort of denial, I take him at his word.
WELLS: (audible sigh)
LEESER: I’ve known him a very very long time.
KARVELAS: So you’re saying Sue Hickey made it up then? She made up the conversation?
LEESER: No, I’m not saying that at all. What I am saying is that Eric has issued a denial. This is a matter that the Prime Minister has heard both sides of the story and has decided that Eric’s denial is the key point here. But as I say I think the thing is we have all go to be careful about the language that we use and the atmosphere that we create around these issues. So that people who have brought complaints can feel that they can bring complaints and have those matters dealt with seriously.
WELLS: Julian…if I may PK? Julian if it’s upon all of us to encourage that kind of atmosphere. What does it say when the man in the top job yesterday uses the complaint of a woman, who he didn’t have permission to use her story. He didn’t give any advance warning that he was going to do it. He didn’t have the correct information. And he used that example as a way to try to shut down legitimate questions from the fourth estate in a press conference. If that’s the atmosphere we, as parliamentarians are meant to be encouraging, then what does it say about the Prime Minister to do that? And then issue an apology at 11 o’clock at night on Facebook, like a teenager. I mean it’s a standard that we would not accept from our own children. If your kid came to you and said I’ve upset someone. I got the facts wrong. I’m in a tough spot right now but it’s alright, because I’ve posted about it on Facebook, you would not accept that as an acceptable form of conduct. You would say, front up and apologise to the person, in person. And yet somehow, the PM and the Office of the Prime Minister are asking Australians to accept that as a standard of conduct from the man in the highest position in the land. And it is completely unacceptable.
KARVELAS: Yeah, Julian, it was a pretty poor thing for the Prime Minister to do. He’s apologised to News Corporation but shouldn’t he be apologising to women when he did actually weaponise a complaint? A complaint that didn’t even end up existing.
LEESER: Well look I think the Prime Minister was right to apologise. He has apologised, from what I heard in Question Time as I was driving through my electorate today. I had heard that he repeated that apology today. And I think that that was appropriate. But I think actually in his speech yesterday, in his press conference, he made some important points. And I think he made some points that he heard what women have been saying. I think he was right to say that women deserved to feel safe. They deserve to feel safe in their homes, walking around our towns and cities, at schools, at universities, in workplaces and particularly in the parliament. And that they shouldn’t be ignored, or patronised, or disrespected. That was the key messages that I took away from his press conference yesterday. And I think his statement was a good one and a necessary one.
KARVELAS: Anika he did make some strong comments about wanting women to stand with him and wanting to take these issues seriously. Are you convinced that the government is going to proceed by doing that?
WELLS: No. Because then he completely undercut them by outing a woman’s complaint. A story that he did not even have straight as a way to try and shut down questioning.
KARVELAS: And as Julian said he apologised about that last night. How about the action part of the piece? Do you think he’s going to deliver on the action?
WELLS: I still think that goes to his character and judgement. But on the action he has now had for 15 months, 55 recommendations on respect at work. He hasn’t actioned any of them. He could start there. He should have started there 15 months ago. He should have started there five weeks ago. He should have started there in his press conference yesterday and he still hasn’t done it.
KARVELAS: Yeah, look, it…it strikes me Julian Leeser that that would be an immediate thing the government could do. Kind of no brainer really. It’s just sitting there, the work’s already done. Do you think he should be actioning that immediately?
LEESER: Well look, again in Question Time today he said that he was going to be responding to those in the next few weeks. Between now and the budget. So I take him at his word there. Yes I think there is a strong desire to seek a commitment to the Respect at Work report. And I think that the high standard on which that report is…the high regard for that report is reflected in the fact that all parties have signed up to a process where the author of that report Kate Jenkins is looking at the culture and processes around these matters in our parliament. And I think that in of itself is a vote of confidence. So I look forward to the government’s response on that.
KARVELAS: And it’s my understanding that it was Kelly O’Dwyer, the former Minister for Women, who fought tooth and nail to even commission the report. To get that work done. And still it hasn’t been implemented. It’s a bit of a disappointment I’ve gotta say.
LEESER: Well we’re going to see the Prime Minister’s response in a couple of weeks. And I look forward to that response.
KARVELAS: Yeah, well I reckon it’s urgent. Quotas. Still sticking with you Julian Leeser. Do you want to see quotas in the Liberal party?
LEESER: Look, my position has been a philosophical position of Liberals that people should be judged on individual qualities. That’s where we start. That has certainly been the position that most women in our party have tended to take as well. But I think you know, this is a discussion and debate that we should be having. And I’m open to this. I think quotas is something that may well help address the culture. But there’s a broader cultural question in our parliamentary parties, all of them. Not just our parties, in our parliament generally. And I think we’ve got to address some of the broader cultural things that people like Karen Andrews have been talking about in the last couple of days. Sort of exclusive, blokey, boozy culture that exists in some places in the parliament. Those are the things that I think we need to address. And some of the public discussion about our parliament that’s been going in recent weeks would discourage good people generally from thinking about standing for parliament.
KARVELAS: Particularly women, I would say. Anika you’ve acknowledged you’re a beneficiary of Labor’s quota structure right?
WELLS: Sure am. And I have absolutely had a bar of Liberal and National MPs saying that they don’t support quotas. When the Liberal and National coalition has quotas. They’ve got quotas based on geography. They’ve got quotas based on factions. They’ve got quotas based on different factions in different parts of geography. That’s how they’ve formed their cabinet. That’s how they’ve formed it for decades. But apparently when it comes to quotas for women or for equity groups, that’s a question of merit? The entitlement and the discrimination underpinning that argument is just…unbelievable. And the fact is that quotas work. I am a beneficiary of quotas. And I’m here to tell you that they work. And it’s because they force powerful people in the party, powerful men in the party to look around and give these things more thought and consideration years out. So for me, Wayne Swan looked around, realised we’re going to need to put more women into the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party from Queensland. Looked around to see who was available, who would be good. Helped me, supported me, mentored me. So that when the time came I was ready and I had my family infrastructure in place to do it. Because people with caregiving responsibilities can’t drop everything at the drop of a hat when a by-election is called and head to Canberra. They need more time than that. All the research says that. So quotas help people think about these things from further out, get that support in place. And the proof’s in the pudding. We’ve got more women in parliament.
KARVELAS: Look at that! Merit, quotas. You’ve got merit too. You’ve even got twins and you’re managing it. You’re killing it ok.
WELLS: Thank you.
KARVELAS: Julian let me ask you a question before I let you go. Both The Australian newspaper and the Australian Financial Review are now reporting…a different reporting to be clear. But the AFR is now reporting that the Federal Attorney General Christian Porter could be sent to the backbench in a reshuffle that will also move Linda Reynolds out of Defence. Do you think there should be a reshuffle to make these key change now to settle some of these issues which are dogging the government?
LEESER: Oh look, these are entirely matters for the Prime Minister
KARVELAS: Would it make your life easier on panels like this, with me?
LEESER: These are entirely matters for the Prime Minister at the end of the day. You know, that’s just some media speculation. Today I’ve been really focussed on you know, helping people in my own community. And it’s been a great reminder for me about the real reason I’m here in the first place. Which is to look after the people in my community, to be an advocate for them. And to ensure in times like this when they’re facing the aftermath of a terrible flood, the worst in 30 years, that they’ve got the services and the supports that they need. That’s what I’m focussed on.
KARVELAS: It is just a report. But the AFR saying he might go to the backbench. You’ve got 30 seconds to answer this one Anika. Would that be a welcome move? Labor’s been pushing for him to be dumped of course.
WELLS: Yeah definitely. And I’ll answer this as a woman rather than as a Labor politician for you, after five very very long weeks it would be really nice to see just a little bit of action rather than just empty words.
KARVELAS: Alright we’re out of time. Thanks to both of you.
WELLS: Thanks so much
KARVELAS: Queensland MP Anika Wells and New South Wales Liberal MP Julian Leeser. And yes Anika actually has baby twins and she manages going to Canberra from Queensland. And it’s incredible to watch. Not just her but the women who do balance these work/life responsibilities. And also male MPs in parliament who lift in their families, and do that work too. Because it is incredibly hard particularly if you are travelling those vast distances. From Perth, from WA, from Broome, from the top of the country, from the NT to be going to parliament house in Canberra. Keeping your life together.