ABC RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly - 04/03/2021

04 March 2021

SUBJECTS: Historic rape allegations against Cabinet minister; Alleged sexual assault in Parliament House; Linda Reynolds’ response to Ms Higgins; Defence Force Chief Angus Campbell.

FRAN KELLY, HOST: Penny Wong is the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, she joins me in the Breakfast studio. Senator Wong, welcome back to Breakfast.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good to be with you and good to be with you in person, Fran. It's been a long time.

KELLY: It's been a long year, hasn't it really?

WONG: Yes.

KELLY: Labor Leader Anthony Albanese said before yesterday's press conference from the Attorney-General that quote "the Prime Minister can't pretend this will go away. It will not". After listening to the Attorney-General's emphatic and emotional denial of the rape allegation, in your mind is this matter now resolved or does he still have questions to answer?

WONG: I think the problem here is that a press conference in which allegations – serious allegations – are denied is not going to give Australians the confidence that is required for a member of the Cabinet, and as you say, the person who is the first law officer of the country. But can I just take a step back a bit, Fran?

I think we are at a moment of serious national reckoning. I think we are at a time where brave young women have stepped forward, whether it's Ms Grace Tame or Ms Brittany Higgins or many others, and women are saying "enough". Now, there's been a lot of talk in the last few weeks about changing in culture; changes to how Parliament operates; changes across our society; the recognition of the prevalence, unfortunately, of so much sexual assault. Part of how we do that is how we respond to allegations. And we have serious, credible allegations about our Attorney-General and the Prime Minister really needs to stop looking at this as an issue of glib political management. He needs to take some responsibility, he needs to show some leadership. And in that way, I think, that's how we change culture and that's also how we ensure that Australians have confidence in the Cabinet.

KELLY: So how does the Prime Minister, in your words, take responsibility and show some leadership? Because Christian Porter was emphatic yesterday when he said he described what he called the trial by media as the most wild, intense and unrestrained series of accusations I can remember. And he said that an independent inquiry, which is one avenue being put forward, would mean he had to disprove something that he says didn't happen. So, what does the Prime Minister need to do to show leadership?

WONG: Well first, I don't think you take responsibility by not reading allegations about a Cabinet Minister, which are sent to you. And we all know the Prime Minister was sent those allegations. I provided them to him as did Sarah Hanson-Young after they were provided to me. And he's the only other person to whom I provided them.

KELLY: Did you read them?

WONG: I have read them.

KELLY: So, he should read them?

WONG: And he should take action that recognises that this trial by media, and I do agree actually, that that is not the optimal way – the right way – we should deal with it in a democracy. He should take action to ensure that the trial by media is not the way we proceed. Because the reality is, unless there is some form of investigation, some form of process that gives Australians the assurance, the confidence in the first law officer, I think these questions will continue and it is a matter for the Prime Minister. He is responsible for the membership of the Cabinet and he is responsible to all of us; for assuring Australians that everyone in that Cabinet is a fit and proper person for the office that they hold.

KELLY: But I just put that question – a similar question – to the Treasurer, the deputy Liberal leader...

WONG: Yes and he ducked it again. I listened to it, he ducked it again.

KELLY: He said the proper authority, as the Prime Minister says, is the police.

WONG: Yes, and you and I both know what the police have said; that in these circumstances, and these are unprecedented circumstances, the police have said there is an absence of admissible evidence. We know that, tragically, this woman is no longer with us and that has consequences for a police investigation. And the Prime Minister has to deal with those.

KELLY: How would an inquiry answer those questions? How would it resolve this? It would face the same hurdles as the police to some extent in that the woman is not alive to give oral evidence. How would that work? Do you have a sense of that?

WONG: I think these are questions that the Prime Minister should be answering. My only point is this: in the absence of some inquiry, some investigation that enables greater assurance, I think what you see today will continue. And that is, people reasonably asking whether or not they can have confidence in the Attorney-General of Australia.

I have to say this legal argument that Mr Porter ran, which I think you just played an excerpt of, that somehow this is different to Dyson Heydon, the investigation into him, because one dealt with a less serious crime. I just don't think that washes. I think people are deeply concerned and I think good people on both sides of politics are also concerned that we deal with this properly and we don't deal with this simply by way of public accusation, which is not the way I have dealt with it. I mean, let's remember, this is an accusation I've been aware of for some time. And I've not put it into the public arena until I received that information. It is now with the Prime Minister and he needs to act.

KELLY: Just on this inquiry to finish off on this. We spoke with experienced barrister Rachel Doyle earlier. She agreed that it is a different situation to Dyson Heydon because that was within a workplace and there are rules around workplace discrimination, but this is a new element we're talking about. She talks about forging a new way. Should the Prime Minister invite Labor in to help work out forging a new kind of inquiry and should that inquiry – would you expect that would also then be suggested that it deal with the Bill Shorten allegations that are historic?

WONG: Well, hang on. There are a few questions there. Firstly, in relation to the allegations around Bill Shorten, they have been investigated and the police have determined that they do not wish to proceed, or they're not proceeding with any further – that the investigation is closed and there's no charge that will be laid.

KELLY: Which is what happened with Christian Porter to some degree.

WONG: No, I don't agree. I think they are very different. Mr Shorten cooperated with police. He answered questions. He waived any right to self-incrimination and cooperated fully. Instead we have an Attorney-General who claims he hasn't even seen the allegations.

KELLY: Well, we have an Attorney-General who also wonders why politicians who had access to these allegations didn't bring them to him. Why didn't you?

WONG: Because they were with the police. The woman approached me and told me she was going to the police, which is what happened. I arranged for a referral to Yarrow Place, which is a sexual assault service in Adelaide. Are you really suggesting it would be an appropriate thing for me, when it is before the police, to tell the alleged rapist?

KELLY: Well, that's what Christian Porter is alleging; wondering out loud why people didn't.

WONG: Well, I find that difficult because that would have been, I think, the wrong thing to do when there was a police investigation on foot, and the fact that there was an investigation on foot has been reported. But that is no answer now to why Mr Porter is not familiar with these allegations. I found that part of his press conference quite difficult to understand.

KELLY: So just to be clear, Labor is calling for an inquiry.

WONG: I think there has to be, and I think Anthony Albanese said so today. There has to be some form of inquiry or other process to give people the assurance that Mr Porter is a fit and proper person to be in the Cabinet. What sort of form that takes is a matter for the PM and he should take that responsibility.

KELLY: The Government's general approach to sexual assault has been under scrutiny over the last few weeks. The Defence Minister Linda Reynolds is not denying a suggestion today, a report today that she called her former staffer Brittany Higgins a "lying cow". Brittany Higgins is the former staffer who has made an allegation of rape. The Minister says she wasn't talking about her allegation of rape but rather the news reports about her own response to that incident. Do you accept that explanation?

WONG: I have found many of Minister Reynolds' explanations confused. She's had to come back into the Parliament on more than one occasion to correct answers she has given. I think it would have been far better for her to have given a full clear statement to the Senate about this matter. But leaving all that aside, I've seen those reports. It's obviously not an acceptable comment and I think the Minister needs to respond publicly.

KELLY: And can I just ask you finally. Yesterday the report of the Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell. He's a Male Champion of Change. He went and spoke to new recruits at the Defence Force Academy basically to say I want to help you protect yourself from something that could derail your life. And he gave them the advice of the four As: alcohol, being out after midnight, being out alone and attractive. Now, some of those who heard that felt that was victim blaming. He's issued a statement to try and clarify that. What do you think?

WONG: Well, I think we all need to avoid victim blaming. We all need to be very clear that the behaviour that needs to change is the behaviour of men who choose to assault women. I saw his statement clarifying it and I thought that dealt with the matter.

KELLY: Penny Wong, thank you very much for joining us.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.