ABC 7.30 with Laura Tingle - 24/03/2021

24 March 2021

SUBJECTS: Senate Estimates; Brittany Higgins; Morrison Government avoiding accountability; speculation about a cabinet reshuffle; ministerial standards.

LAURA TINGLE, HOST: Penny Wong, you've spent the last few days in Estimates committee hearings. Could you tell us what we've learnt and what we haven't learnt about the Brittany Higgins incident?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Well I can tell you what we've learnt is that this Government's approach to this serious matter has been one of tricky political management, and we've learnt that the Prime Minister is willing to continue to say things that are frankly misleading and certainly tricky in the House of Representatives.

And I want to make a broader point if I may, Laura, which is, this lack of, avoidance of accountability and the tricky political management means that Mr Morrison really is hamstrung from tackling the fundamental issue here which is the deeply harmful culture around the treatment of women in this place and beyond.

TINGLE: That's the broader point. But in Estimates hearing themselves - you've been sitting through a lot of these over the years - have we seen a change I mean these are supposed to be hearings where you're able to talk to public servants and find out what's going on, but there seems to have been an extraordinary level of stonewalling that we haven't seen this week.

WONG: I think this week is a new low. From a Government that has made the avoidance of accountability to the Parliament one of their hallmarks, this is a new low. Because what we have across the parliament, across estimates committees, is in relation to Ms Higgins, and the allegations that have been made about what happened to her - the allegation of a rape, in relation to that - the Government has refused to answer questions and has brought in, taken the approach of stonewalling and avoiding them. And what is really disappointing is that you see the Prime Minister giving answers in the House, which are misleading and tricky, and you see him giving press conferences which avert to the very facts that we are not able to get answers to in Senate estimates.

TINGLE: Is it unusual though to see bureaucrats like the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the head of the Federal Police also closing down on these issues?

WONG: I will make one comment in relation to Mr Gaetjens, which is this; that I have dealt with senior public servants, as a Minister, I have dealt with senior public servants in Opposition, both now and earlier when I first came into the Parliament and I've dealt with some very fine public servants. Mr Gaetjens’ approach to the Parliament is not in accordance with the practices and traditions that I would expect of the most senior public servant in the country.

TINGLE: Have these events, though, made you also reconsider your views about the rules by which Parliament House works, and about the MOP(S) Act? I mean, it seems to outsiders like Parliament House is a law unto itself, where we can't find out what happened from either the people who run it, or from the public servants involved.

WONG: Well, I would make the point that we can't find out what happened because the Prime Minister is choosing to take an approach that prevents people from finding out what happened.

TINGLE: There's speculation that the Prime Minister is about to move to dump both Linda Reynolds and Christian Porter. Should they be dumped from the Ministry altogether? And if so, why? And would it be acceptable for Christian Porter to just lose the Attorney General's portfolio?

WONG: Like many people, I feel we've had weeks of discussion about the actions both of Mr Porter and Senator Reynolds, and yet it is only now that the Prime Minister is suggesting via reports in media, that he might act. And I think Australians, particularly Australian women are entitled to feel a bit cynical about why it has taken so long. I think it's taken so long because he realises this is a problem for him.

TINGLE: Do you think that people have also lost sight of what the test should be about why ministers stay or go? And what should that test be?

WONG: The test the Government kept using until I think it has no longer been politically feasible for them to use is a criminal test. And you and I both know that has never been the standard that we expect of ministers. We have expected from governments of both political persuasions standards beyond the criminal standard and that is as it should be.

TINGLE: Thanks for your time tonight.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.