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ABC Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas

Senator the Hon Amanda Stoker

Subjects: Jenkins report, religious discrimination bill, Commonwealth Integrity Commission, anti-trolling bill, national accounts


PATRICIA KARVELAS: The second last day of the parliamentary year has been dominated by the response to Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins's report into parliamentary workplace culture. The review found one-in-three staff had experienced some form of harassment, and included 28 recommendations. Amanda Stoker is the Assistant Minister for Women and the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, and she joined me a short time ago:

Amanda Stoker, welcome.

AMANDA STOKER: Thanks very much.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Kate Jenkins has urged the Government to act fast and not cherry pick the recommendations of this report. She wants all 28 adopted in full. Will the Morrison Government do this, the full execution of all the recommendations?

AMANDA STOKER: It's something that the Government is very seriously considering. We haven't rushed our response to it, because it is serious and sobering reading that we want to work collaboratively with those across the aisle on. So we are giving that the serious consideration it deserves, because I think everybody accepts that what is in her report is of great concern. And though in some respects it was expected after some of the matters that have come out of Parliament House over the course of the last year, that is nothing but impetus for action.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: I spoke to former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward on Radio National Drive last night and she told me what she feared was that there would be resistance from politicians to set up this complaints mechanism, because they will be worried about leaks coming out of it. And she said you must push on even if that resistance does emerge. Do you anticipate that resistance, and what's your answer to that concern?

AMANDA STOKER: Look, I don't anticipate resistance. From what I can tell, everybody in the building accepts that it is essential that people are able to be safe here at work. That it is vital to be able to attract the best and brightest to want to work here. That they be assured of safety. And that the measures that have already been implemented haven't faced the resistance that Ms Goward has foreshadowed, suggests to me there will continue to be support for the implementation of change where it's necessary. One example is the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service has been in place, it offers a complaints and resolution mechanism, it does so with mechanisms for confidentiality. And I've seen no resistance to the good work that they are doing, and the assistance they're providing. I've tested it myself to make sure I understand how it works, and it's an outstanding service that people can have confidence in. Similarly, there are processes for training and the like, and they're rolling on in a way that's having a meaningful impact. So I don't share those concerns. I'm optimistic that this place has had the reality check it needed.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The report revealed 63 per cent of female politicians have been sexually harassed. Have you experienced sexual harassment in the Parliament?

AMANDA STOKER: Look, I think everybody in this place, no matter which way you vote, no matter where you come from, no matter whether you're a man or a woman, you deserve to be able to work here in safety and without harassment. The important, I think, message that we get from her report is that there's this horrible one-in-three figure of the respondents to Commissioner Jenkins' investigation, having had bad experiences. Now that is just respondents, but even- I wouldn't want that just to be taken out of context, that's a lot, that’s a lot of people. So no matter what role we hold here, we've got to make sure people are safe to do what they need to do for the people they serve.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: One of the ideas is obviously embracing quotas to change the gender make-up in the Parliament. Is that something you think that needs to be looked at by your political party?

AMANDA STOKER: Look, I'm not someone who supports quotas. I think what we need to do is make sure that at all times, we have no barriers to women choosing this as a way that they want to contribute to their country, and we need to provide all the support and the training and the mentorship, and the sponsorship that's needed to make that happen. But a quota has the impact of undermining the seriousness and the weight that women have once they get here. And I don't think that's good for women in the long term. And I think it's also significant to say at the last election, we had exactly half men and half women come into our party room without a quota. And we've got more women in cabinet than ever before – no matter which political colours we talk about – and that's without a quota too. So progress has been made, and I think it will continue to march on and fast without quotas being in place.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Prime Minister says he's very disappointed by reports that Liberal Senator David Van made dog noises and growling while Senator Jacqui Lambie was asking a question. The Senator has apologised, but denies making those noises, even though a few people heard it. Did you hear the exchange?

AMANDA STOKER: I was actually on leave, so I wasn't there and I didn't hear it. If those sounds were made, they would be utterly unacceptable.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Why would you make sounds like that? What's your analysis of what's going on here?

AMANDA STOKER: I can't get into the mind of somebody who would make sounds like that. And so I'm very hopeful that Senator Van is correct in his statement.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. But I suppose what I'm trying to get at is do you think that those sounds are really gendered and they're about degrading women?

AMANDA STOKER: It's hard for me to say without having heard it in context. But I think that a person who would do that for a gendered reason would need to have a good hard look at themselves, because that's not okay.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Restricting the availability of alcohol was among the recommendations, and it's an interesting one. Pru Goward, actually, again quoting her – she's making quite a splash in this interview – she also said that she thinks the recommendations weren't strong enough even on that. That she thinks alcohol has a toxic role to play in all of this. What's your view?

AMANDA STOKER: It's true that most workplaces have pretty clear constraints on how alcohol is consumed and when. And that those constraints don't really exist in Parliament House at present. What I guess is a limitation is the generality of the recommendation that's been made by Commissioner Jenkins. And the practicalities of making sure that whatever was proposed could be enforced. So it's something I'm open to, but I think I'd need to see a little bit more detail of how we go about doing that and how practical it would be before we locked in.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Has the Prime Minister or anyone from the Government spoken to Brittany Higgins since the review has been released?

AMANDA STOKER: I'm not sure. I'm happy to find out for you, Patricia. But I haven't done so, and I'd have to get back to you.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. The Health Minister is reportedly retiring at the next election. My understanding is the announcement is coming tomorrow. I wonder what you make of that. Does that sort of- there's always some movement as an election nears. Does it show that you're likely to lose some senior figures in the Morrison Government?

AMANDA STOKER: Look, I'm personally very sad to hear talk of Greg retiring, but I don't think it's anything other than a reflection of 20 years of bloody hard work on his part and in particular the last two years. He has worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He would have done more if it was possible. And that's reflective of the challenges of the COVID period and the way that he has really stepped up. Even the most capable person I think is due a break after that kind of intensity.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Government has now reportedly struck a deal with Labor to pull the voter ID bill in exchange for the Opposition support on other election bills. Is that correct?

AMANDA STOKER: Look, that's not information with which I am briefed, but the Government is always prepared to work with Labor to get the right stuff done for this country. We are always open to bipartisanship. And if those sorts of discussions are happening, they reflect the ordinary course of business.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so I wonder, is the Coalition still committed to the voter ID laws? Because it means, I think, that they wouldn't be in place by the next election. Do you still think they're necessary? Because they've faced a lot of opposition, as you know.

AMANDA STOKER: Look, I think they're a sensible reform. They deal with something that anybody who's been around politics for any amount of time knows. You hear that old Labor slogan: vote early, vote often, and references to the cemetery turning out to vote. Just because that isn't documented – it couldn't be, because it's very hard to run investigations against people who are in the cemetery – doesn't necessarily mean there isn't a problem to deal with here. The accusations that it amounts to voter suppression are really, I think, something of a misleading line in the sense that there is such a long list of ways available to identify yourself that it couldn't possibly do anything but empower people to vote. And to suggest- particularly the suggestion it operates in a racially biased way I find particularly galling. It's fair-minded, and anyone who's serious about the integrity of Australian elections should have no problem with this bill. But that said, we do what we need to to get stuff done.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But what problem are we trying to fix? It's not a widespread problem. We know this. Our electoral system is actually incredibly robust – something we should be proud of. What problem are you trying to fix?

AMANDA STOKER: Well, the fact that there hasn't been prosecutions doesn't mean there isn't a problem. All it means is that the problem that we are trying to deal with is one that isn't being captured by the things that we currently measure. But ultimately, let's go back to the essence of it here. All Australians have some form of ID. The list of ways you can identify yourself is extraordinarily long. And in circumstances where there is no exclusion of any Australian as a consequence of the requirement to show ID, then having better accountability around double voting, or people who have since passed voting, is something that is in everyone's interest, particularly when seats can often turn by double digits.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Labor says the religious discrimination bill has also been withdrawn from the agenda. Is that right?


PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well, where is it at then?

AMANDA STOKER: It's currently introduced into the House of Representatives. It's on the program. And we will be dealing with it in the ordinary course.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But if you look at the number of sitting days, you can't pass it by the election, right?

AMANDA STOKER: Well, it depends on when the election is. We are optimistic that we can still pass it before the election.



PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. Your Senate colleague Concetta Fierravanti-Wells says a federal integrity commission is overdue. She's questioned the resistance to introduce a body, asking if MPs are conflicted. What's your response to Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells?

AMANDA STOKER: Well, the overarching response is that we have a model. It is ready to go, and we can pass it today. We can pass it today if Labor are prepared to indicate they're willing to support it. But in circumstances where we have those in Labor and the crossbench holding out for something else, we're not going to waste precious time that we could, for instance, be dealing with a religious discrimination bill, debating an integrity commission that ultimately, at this stage, the numbers aren't there for. We will press on with that which is able to be achieved. So the moment Labor's prepared to sign on, we'll bring it on.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But you're trying to ask them to sign onto something you haven't delivered to them. You haven’t even delivered the bill. You're saying, sign on to a bill we can't introduce.

AMANDA STOKER: Well, there's been two exposure drafts. So I don't think there's an awful lot of mystery around the various matters that have been proposed by those on the government side.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The social media anti-trolling bill exposure draft allows a complaint to request the contact details of the commenter. What protections are in place to prevent, for example, an abuser getting access to the details of their victim?

AMANDA STOKER: Yeah, that's a really good question. Built into the framework of the bill is a range of protections, and there are two channels for going through this process. One is a court order-based process, which would, of course, flush out those types of considerations. The other is a complaints process that will go through a, I guess, a government body, where there will be people who will be filtering out and applying those safeguards to make sure that it's not being misused. But of course, given that we're dealing with online social abuse, it needs- sorry, online abuse, it needs to be the case that that can be produced before a person can start to take advantage of the avenues proposed by the bill. If one is in the situation that you've described, those patterns wouldn't be there.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just finally on the national accounts, Australia has recorded its third largest quarterly contraction on record of 1.9 per cent. Labor says Australia is now last out of the 28 advanced countries which have reported for the September quarter. Does it demonstrate that the Government pulled back on some of its supports, including JobKeeper, prematurely?

PATRICIA KARVELAS: No, I don't think that's right. What it shows us is that lockdowns have an impact. The September quarter was one in which there were significant lockdowns, and it really does make the case for the importance of pressing on with a national plan to safely reopen our economy and re-engage with the world. The reason that in the September quarter our numbers look very different to places around the world is that they've already gone through this stage and have already reopened and integrated. However, if we look at the year as a whole, we are still, taken as a whole, doing okay over the course of the year. What this tells us, though, is that the commitment to keep opening up needs to be maintained. We really need to stay the course.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us.