ABC RN Drive with Andy Park
Subjects: Text messages, Citipointe Christian College, culture in Parliament, aged care
ANDY PARK: First up, on a day when another 70 Australians lost their lives to COVID-19, including, tragically, a child under the age of 10, the Prime Minister has continued to face questions over a text exchange attacking his character. The leaked messages were sensationally revealed by channel 10's Peter van Onselen at yesterday's National Press Club lunch.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: I've been provided with a text message exchange between the former New South Wales Premier and a current Liberal Cabinet minister. I've got them right here. In one, she describes you as, quote, a horrible, horrible person. Going on to say she did not trust you, and you're more concerned with politics than people. The minister is even more scathing, describing you as a fraud and, quote, a complete psycho. Does this exchange surprise you and what do you think it tells us?
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ANDY PARK: Channel 10 political editor, Peter van Onselen, questioning the Prime Minister yesterday. So are the cracks appearing so early in an election year? Senator Amanda Stoker is the Assistant Minister for Women and Industrial Relations. She's also the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General. I spoke to her a short time ago.
AMANDA STOKER: Hello, Andy.
ANDY PARK: So you're not in Cabinet, so can we categorically rule you out as the person who received these messages?
AMANDA STOKER: Yes, you can. But for the record, I have no knowledge of them and would never write such a thing.
ANDY PARK: So you don't know who did send them?
AMANDA STOKER: No, of course not.
ANDY PARK: I mean the text messages are highly critical of the Prime Minister's character. Is this a valid criticism?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, I don't think so. It's important to note that we're dealing with messages that none of us have actually seen. We're taking it on the word of someone who just put it to the Prime Minister in an open forum. But even-
ANDY PARK: Do you doubt Peter van Onselen's credibility in that respect?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, no, I don't. I just haven't seen it myself, and it's always an unwise thing to comment in detail on things that you haven't seen with your own eyes. But what I can say is this: In my time working with the Prime Minister, he has been engaged, he has been hard working, he has been trustworthy, and he has been kind. And for my part, I don't see any justification for a message like that. But I guess that's what leads me to doubt it. So until I know who's responsible and I get a chance to see it, I'm going to treat it like it's gossip.
ANDY PARK: If these messages were in fact from a Cabinet minister, does it show that there is an effort to undermine the Prime Minister from within his own party?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, that's a hypothetical. Again, since it is being treated, I think quite properly, as gossip at this point in time, I wouldn't want to read too much into it. What I do know is that the team I have seen and that I get to work with has been remarkably cohesive through a really difficult period in Australian life, and they've worked very effectively.
ANDY PARK: This does not sound like cohesion, Senator. This sounds like the opposite. This sounds like the starter's gun to another killing season, and I think Australians probably expect a bit better.
AMANDA STOKER: I can understand why that's the case. But again, given that none of us know where these messages have come from, we haven't seen them more than having them read out by one journalist and taking it on the basis of that, it's a little bit hard to read too much into it, in circumstances where my actual experience is that everybody works very well in the interest of Australians, rather than engaging in petty grievances.
ANDY PARK: To another subject, Senator, Brisbane Pentecostal school, Citipointe Christian College, has been referred to the independent accreditation board over a new enrolment contract which states the school can expel a student over their gender identity or sexual orientation. Queensland Education Minister Grace Grace told RN Breakfast this morning that the contract is unacceptable.
GRACE GRACE: It's discriminatory, and they should withdraw it straightaway. Do the right thing, do the Christian thing, and withdraw this straight away. Why the need to do this if they've never had to, you know, expel or exclude a student in the past? I don't understand the urgency. I don't understand the timing. And I do hope that this has nothing to do with the Racial Discrimination Act, federally, because I would be absolutely horrified to think that members of the LGBTIQ community are being treated like this.
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ANDY PARK: Queensland Education Minister Grace Grace there. Senator, you're a former Barrister. Queensland's Anti-Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, specifically referring to schools. Does that mean that this school's contract is illegal in your view?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, I think the first thing to say is that no person in this country should face discrimination on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. It's worth noting, particularly given what Minister Grace Grace has just said there, from Queensland Labor, that it's really important to note that the provisions that have empowered this policy were not anything to do with the proposed religious discrimination bill. They weren't empowered by it. They were done, in fact, under the changes that were made to the Sex Discrimination Act by Mr Dreyfus under Labor's Gillard government. So that's a really important starting point, I think, from which to begin.
The next thing to say is that it is really important to observe – this often gets lost in the debate here – that it's a well-established principle of international law, and it is not an act of discrimination, to exercise genuinely held religious beliefs, even if they might offend others. And so, everything we do in this country is about making sure that everybody, whatever walk of life they come from and whatever they are dealing with or believing with in their life, they are treated with fairness.
Now, it is important parents have places where they can choose an education that suits the needs of their child and their family and their beliefs. There are great schools in our community that will be extremely supportive of any student who is going through these, I guess, awakenings. And there also needs to be schools in our community that cater to a more traditional or religious audience. Parental choice is what it's all about.
ANDY PARK: This contract- Senator, this contract was dropped on these students the day before they were due to return to school. So are you saying that this contract will stand up, that it's not going to be overturned?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, I'm not going to defend the timing or the consultation process. I just don't have visibility on that. But what I can say-
ANDY PARK: Do you defend the spirit of the contract?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, what I am told is that this document represents a school policy that has been already in place. I think they call it a statement of belief, or something of that nature. That's already been in place for over a year. So there shouldn't be surprises. But in any event, it's clear that the school needs to go on a bit of a consultation and communication exercise. And no doubt, they'll take into account the robust feedback they received over this period, and they should.
ANDY PARK: The religious discrimination bill, which was meant to be brought to a vote last year, was delayed precisely because of concerns that this would happen. I mean, the Prime Minister has defended the right of schools to do this, as long as they're up front about the mission and values. Is this what Citipointe Christian College has done here? And is this just the first case of many?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, I don't think that's right. It's important to note that this is a school that has had gay students, that has treated them well, kindly, pastorally, and that they haven't expelled students falling this category. There is a concern that’s occasionally expressed to me by schools about, I guess, the activist family that joins a school, not to become a part of its community, but for the purposes of inflicting change upon an otherwise traditional way of doing things.
ANDY PARK: Is that realistic, though? I mean, changing schools just to make a political point seems like a bit of a stretch.
AMANDA STOKER: Well, look, I'm told by some school stakeholders that it is something that occurs, and something that they are concerned about, and it is the only circumstance in which they would ever want to have those powers that were introduced by Labor all those years ago.
But let's get back to the bill that's before the Parliament now. And the first thing to say is this: the religious discrimination bill that's before the parliament does not empower this conduct. That is a factor that is already law, and it is law under the Sex Discrimination Act. The next thing to say is that the Liberal-National Government has committed to taking away those exceptions, and we will do it as soon as we have the Religious Discrimination Act in force. The only reason we can't do it beforehand is that we need to be able to tailor it to whatever product ultimately emerges from the Senate. But it's already something we believe in and have committed to.
ANDY PARK: So if the families of students at Citipointe don't sign this contract and they get expelled on day one of term, you support that?
AMANDA STOKER: No, I didn't say that, and I don't. But I think it's important to note that the school has already indicated that they're going to take their time with this, that they're going to go on something of a listening journey with the school community. And they said that they won't be doing those things as of today. So I don't accept that proposition. I think everybody in every school community needs to be doing their best to work together to focus on giving a great education to everyone in that school community, being transparent about what they stand for and pastoral about working through the challenges that people face.
ANDY PARK: Senator Amanda Stoker is my guest here on RN Drive.
Moving to issues in your workplace, Senator, one of three staffers have been sexually harassed, that's what we've learned. Cabinet Minister Simon Birmingham last year said that he expected the leadership task force to drive change, and a statement acknowledging the harm that has been caused, and it would be delivered before Parliament resumes. Parliament sits next week. Is that a broken promise?
AMANDA STOKER: No, I understand that still on track to occur. And while I'd suggest the figure you cited is entirely accurate in that it was one-in-three respondents to the review-
ANDY PARK: Who participated in the review, okay granted.
AMANDA STOKER: That's right. But nevertheless, that one-in-three is too much, right? That's an indicator that there needs to be cultural and practical change. That's still coming, and you can expect it as committed.
ANDY PARK: As Assistant Minister for Women, you've been quoted as saying that you yourself have missed out on political opportunities due to the sort of beer drinking boys club. And then yet, on the other hand, you maintain that claims of bullying of women in the Liberal Party are quite pathetic and bizarre. How can you have it both ways?
AMANDA STOKER: I think they're actually really different points. It's one thing to observe that the way that men and women bond can be different, and the way that political loyalties can be formed – even in our ordinary community, the way that mates bond is different to the way that women bond. And that can often have political implications when it comes to things like pre-selection votes. On the other hand, bullying is different. Bullying is unlawful. Bullying is a repeated pattern of isolation and harassment, and humiliation in the workplace. That is not okay. That is never okay. And everything must be done to make sure that the Federal Parliament is a workplace without it. I see them as completely distinct points.
ANDY PARK: Lastly, Senator, Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck has told a Parliamentary inquiry into the COVID response that the sector is performing extremely well, despite more residents dying from COVID in January than the whole of 2021. How then, is it accurate to say that the sector is doing extremely well?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, one thing I know about Minister Colbeck is that he really does have a lot of confidence and support for the people in that sector. And no doubt his expression is one of confidence in the very good people who work in that field. It is true to say there have been more Australians in aged care who passed away in January than in all of the previous year. But it's also true to say that is the period in which our country has opened up. We have stopped living under the doona. We have taken the opportunity of the slightly milder Omicron variant to get back to normal life, knowing that there are enormous costs associated with that, but also knowing that the costs, human and otherwise, of continuing to live in isolation and locked up in our homes, with all the mental health and other health consequences that has, are not viable for the long term either. No one wants to be heartless about this. Aged Care is really important, and the people who are in it are very important. But they are usually more fragile. They are usually people with comorbidities, and they are usually people who are, you know, approaching their latter end of their life. So that does create an environment of higher risk. And I take his comments as an expression of thanks and support for those who do the difficult work of the aged care sector.
ANDY PARK: That's all we have time for. Thank you for your time, Senator.
AMANDA STOKER: Thank you very much, Andy.
ANDY PARK: Senator Amanda Stoker is the Assistant Minister for Women and Industrial Relations. She's also the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General.