25 May 2021

TUESDAY, 25 MAY 2021

SUBJECTS: Investigation into Brittany Higgins case, vaccine rollout


MATT DORAN, HOST: A lot to digest with our Tuesday panel. Joining me is the Nationals MP for the seat of Malley, Ann Webster. And Labor MP for the seat of Lilley, Anika Wells. Welcome to both of you.



DORAN: Ann Webster, let’s start with you. We’ve seen a lot of attention this morning in Senate estimates on the way in which these investigations are being undertaken. Do you understand how people would be frustrated with how this is playing out? Not only by the lack of answers coming from those with conduct of these inquiries, but the fact that it seems like answers are being withheld?

WEBSTER: Well I’m not sure how much responsibility the Senate has in hearing those responses when they’re still in process. I think that generally people in my electorate, and they’re the people that I’m concerned about, expect that good process is taking place. And that’s certainly what I’m interested in. That we can trust the process and therefore the results of these investigations.

DORAN:  It seems like Labor is trying to make the point that people like Phil Gaetjens are being obstructive. They’re obfuscating, avoiding answering questions though. I’m assuming that would be a position that you would roundly reject?

WEBSTER: Well I don’t know that I’d roundly reject it. I’m not sure what his requirement is to be that open about a process that’s still being undertaken and that is within the Prime Minister and Cabinet, particularly obviously with the Prime Minister. So there are, I’m sure there’ll be many more questions being asked. And in due course, there will be more answers.

DORAN: Anika Wells, the reasons for Labor’s search for answers here are pretty clear. But do you there’s any risk that the constant interrogation of these points actually undermines the integrity of the investigations and the inquiries themselves?

WELLS: Well not 100 days on Matt. Because to take your example of the Gaetjens inquiry we are now nearly 100 days on since that was commenced. And when you look at the nature of it, what it might involve, it’s actually just talking to a handful of staff members within the Prime Minister’s office about what they knew, and when. That’s probably a morning’s worth of work. It’s certainly a morning’s worth of work in any other workplace or the private sector when it comes to how efficient you should be. So the fact that we’re 100 days on and we still haven’t heard anything starts to whiff of it being kicked off into the never-never. And after a national reckoning where tens of thousands of Australian women marched across the country demanding better, we’re going to continue to hold the PM’s feet to the fire until we get those better outcomes.

DORAN: When you’ve got a decision such as that by your Senate colleague Katy Gallagher to start naming staffers within the Prime Minister’s office though, are you venturing into slightly murky and dangerous territory there?

WELLS: The territory we’re in is the territory that Mr Gaetjens and the Prime Minister have placed us all in by not getting that opened, investigated and closed nearly 100 days ago. The fact that they’re seeming to obfuscate, seeming to be difficult, seeming to obstruct, seeming to take things on notice and then never provide an update doesn’t give us any confidence that they believe in the system. In the same way that the government continuing to vote to support the Member for Bowman Andrew Laming to continue to hold a parliamentary chair role, doesn’t give Australian women any confidence that their actions match their words on such an important issue – women’s security, women’s safety.

DORAN: Ann Webster, we learned this morning that Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s office actually learned about the alleged rape more than a year before Peter Dutton himself says he was alerted to it just a couple of days before it became public. Is there a bit of a don’t-ask, don’t-tell type scenario within the government about keeping information from people who really should be alerted to a situation like that?

WEBSTER: Well I’m not aware of that. I think that nonetheless we welcome Kate Jenkins’ work in terms of the cultural and the systemic practices within government. And it’s not just those who are in government, obviously it’s Opposition. It’s everybody across the board. And I welcome that particular report. I’m looking forward to what Kate Jenkins brings out and the questions that she, I hope, the recommendations that she makes.

DORAN: How much, Anika Wells, is a reflection of political realities? You’re here, you’re all fighting each other to stay in the job.

WELLS: Ann and I get along fine. But yeah…

DORAN: You’re also not direct competitors. I acknowledge that.


DORAN: But you are fighting to hold onto your job. The issue of safeguarding the boss does come into play in some respects doesn’t it? Even if it isn’t necessarily the right approach.

WELLS: Well, to take the Kate Jenkins example about the Respect at Work report and what that might look like up here on the hill. I mean she basically indicated to us when it was all kicked off and she came up to brief MPs, that they probably know what the outcome looks like. They know what the solutions are because they’ve just done all this body of work in the Respect at Work report, 18 months, 24 months ago now. It’s just a matter of executing it. Which comes back to whether there is the will by the powerful people that hold the levers of power at the moment to actually do it. And when we have these delays, when we have these inquiries that never report back. When we have Question Time, almost there was members of the government joking about this stuff when questions were asked by Tanya Plibersek yesterday. It goes back to there not being any confidence that there will be the outcomes that were promised. Promises and delivery are streets apart at the moment.

DORAN: In a statement of the absolute obvious, you are both women.

WELLS: Correct Matt. Well spotted. Well spotted.

WEBSTER: {laughing}

DORAN: Thank you very much. Yep, gold star for me. You are also both first-term MPs.


DORAN: Have you seen any change in the culture in this place since the Brittany Higgins allegations were first aired, compared to what it was like when you were first sworn in, Ann Webster?

WEBSTER: I think it’s actually very interesting. I had a male colleague say to me today “I like your dress. Am I allowed to say that?”. And I thought, you know, it’s actually sad that we have probably put brakes on what are normal relational behaviours across the board. I’m talking in a bipartisan way here. And I think we need to work it out. I think there’s a great deal of hesitancy. That everybody obviously needs to move forward with confidence once all of these reports are done. There’s a lot more work to be done for sure. And I think changing culture, being a sociologist, changing culture is not an easy thing.

DORAN: Anika Wells?

WELLS: {sighs} Well, just in the time that I’ve been back…

DORAN: Because you’ve also been here as a staffer as well in a previous life yes?

WELLS: I have. I have. But just in the time that I’ve returned since being on parental leave, a member of the government walked into Question time with me and said “Anika, I didn’t realise you had twins in there. Oh my God, you’ve snapped back so well since having twins. And then wished me well and congratulated me on my efforts. And went to his seat to sit down for Question time. And I thought, how could you still feel it was in any way appropriate to make those kind of comments about my physical appearance in our workplace, when we are just months beyond a broad-sweeping important national discussion about women in the workplace? So like Ann says, and I was interested to hear your answers as a sociologist. Cultural change is difficult, it’s slow moving. And I don’t think it’s here on the hill, to be honest. When we look at what’s happening in Estimates. When we look at the reports. When we look at the experiences. I think your package was saying 40 reports to the hotline from staffers about incidents that have happened here on the hill. We’ve got a very, very, very long way to go.

DORAN: A long way to go and no doubt a debate which will continue for some time. I do want to pick up the other big issue that’s dominating our national debate and that is the issue of vaccines. The Prime Minister told the Coalition party room today that the term passport, a vaccine passport, was probably not the right phrase to be using. And he told Question time yesterday that it was the AMA’s idea actually to put in place, a sort of digital record. Ann Webster you represent a border community. You’ve got a better insight than many into the consequences of border closures over the last year or so. Do you think there is merit in people holding some sort of digital record as to whether or not they’ve been vaccinated?

WEBSTER: Ah, I think that there is. And I’m going to say it from the point of view that we want our liberty. As you say, my electorate of Malley borders both New South Wales and South Australia. And our border communities suffered greatly for very, very little good. If we have everybody…five states now have permits anyway in place. So if we can get rid of those and simply carry our own exemption card effectively so that we can travel wherever we want to go, I actually welcome that. I don’t, I was troubled by the fact that people were upset about the notion of a passport. It’s not for normal day activity. It’s for when there is a lockdown and we would be, because I’ve had one dose, we would be released to be able to travel wherever we want to go. I think that’s going to see our liberties come back more quickly than if we keep going the way we’re going.

DORAN: Anika Wells, what’s wrong with the idea of a vaccine passport?

WELLS: Well I think it’s not so much the thought of the day by the PM as his track record on the vaccine rollout. I think everybody wants the vaccine rollout to succeed. And everybody wants to do their part. That’s Australians, having protected one another during lockdowns, obeyed the guidelines, followed the advice. That’s businesses and organisations adapting, changing the way that they operate to make sure that they contribute to our success as a country. Bu then that’s also the PM with his two jobs, the vaccine rollout and quarantine, doing his bit too. And that’s where we’re failing. We’re actually failing at the first hurdle there. So I think the problem is a broad failure of confidence in the Prime Minister’s ability to deliver his part in what we’re all contributing to.

DORAN: Ann Webster, you said you’ve had your first dose. Obviously you weren’t experiencing any sort of hesitancy about getting the shot?

WEBSTER: No. None at all.

DORAN:  But are you hearing from anyone in your community about their concerns? Particularly the over 50s demographic that are getting the AstraZenica vaccine?

WEBSTER: Yeah, I think we’re almost at 50 percent of the over 70s now. And we’re, I am very much encouraging people of any age to go ahead and get the vaccine. Again, because we want our liberty. My husband’s a GP so I know, he’s a GP vaccination rollout point, and there has been significant pushback about vaccinations. Because of all the hesitancy. I put it down to, I know media denies this, but I believe a lot of the media coverage has really elevated the concerns rather than looking at the maths, the real maths of the chance of death from having a vaccine versus the chance of death if you don’t and we have a Covid outbreak.

DORAN: Would you agree with that? On the media reporting? Or is it a bit of a ‘damned if you do, damned it you don’t’. You don’t report it – people accuse you of covering up these sort of issues. But then when you do, if we’re listening to Ann Webster, Brendan Murphy, the Health Secretary on Four Corners last night saying the media had to take blame for this. Or part of the blame.

WELLS: I’m getting a lot of emails from people saying they don’t want the vaccine. Or they resent various elements of the vaccine passport or the rollout. So it really concerns me that that is at a sort of percentage density in communities like mine across the country. I would like to see Kath and Kim, or whoever, our most trusted Australian icons, in an ad, paid for by the Australian Government, telling people that it’s alright and we need to get our vaccines. Because if we all want our open borders, we all want our economies to recover beyond the kind of government support that it’s been receiving, we need to get vaccinated. It’s not vaccines that save lives, it’s vaccinations that save lives. And we’re not there yet. Less than a percent of the country is actually fully vaccinated. So I really hope the government puts their full efforts into rolling things out a lot faster than they have so far.

DORAN: I’d be very interested to see how a Kath and Kim campaign would work.

WELLS: Wouldn’t it be good?

DORAN: I’ve got a few ideas rolling around in my head as we speak. Ann Webster, Anika Wells we do have to let you get to the chamber for Question Time. Thank you both for joining us today.

WEBSTER: You’re welcome.

WELLS: Good to be with you.