15 March 2021

SUBJECTS: March for Justice rally; allegations against Labor MPs and staff; Labor’s election victory in Western Australia. 

JADE MACMILLAN, HOST: Time now for our political panel and I am joined by the Assistant Minister to the Attorney General, Senator Amanda Stoker, and the Shadow Trade and Resources Minister Madeleine King. Thanks for your time. Let's talk about the rally, first of all, taking place outside Parliament House right now. Amanda Stoker, did you attend it, and if so, why or why not? 

AMANDA STOKER: I didn't attend. Part of the reason is that we're here, but it was also a conscious decision, and my reasoning is this. Every person, male or female, but importantly women, need to be able to go to work and participate in our community safely. But when I looked at the petition that is the basis for the marches, it called, in no uncertain terms, for the prejudgment of cases where complaints were made, and it's very important that we don't compound one potential wrong with another by abandoning important principles like the presumption of innocence and the rule of law. It's important that we act and hear and respect people with complaints without jumping to conclusions that can actually do another injustice.

MACMILLAN: What about some of the broader messages that the demonstrators were trying to get across? We heard from Brittany Higgins calling for more action to stamp out dangerous workplace cultures, to stamp out sexism. Is that something that you think that perhaps you should have gone to listen to their messages about those issues?

STOKER: Look, I share many of those concerns, and I'm somebody who meets with people to talk through and work through those issues all the time. But there was a very real risk associated with going to that protest, that someone whose job is all about the rule of law in this country could be perceived to be abandoning something very important, and that is the idea that in this country, we are innocent until proven guilty. In this country, we act on complaints, we act on evidence, and we have a good process for making sure that procedural fairness and injustice, those important principles, are upheld, as we do so in everyone's interest.

MACMILLAN: What about the attendance then of other coalition MPs and senators? Do you have an issue with them attending today?

STOKER: I don't have an issue with them attending. It's a matter for them. I think everyone of all political colours is concerned about this issue, and I think everyone of all political colours are prepared and motivated to act on it. I don't think anybody in terms of the parties can throw stones in this glasshouse. So we work together, we do what we need to, and I entirely respect their decision to go outside if they felt like that was a good representation of where they were at.

MACMILLAN: Madeleine King, I believe you were there. What did you take from this, what do you think is the main message that politicians from both sides needed to hear from the people outside Parliament this afternoon? 

MADELEINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR TRADE AND RESOURCES: Yes, I too made a conscious decision, and that was to go to the March for Justice today, and that's on the basis of showing solidarity with women that have been subject to violent sexual assault and bullying and harassment for all time, quite frankly. What I took out of the rally today was a sense of, enough is enough. But enough has been enough for decades, and right now we're at a turning point where people have come forward and there are varying opinions on these allegations, and everyone's entitled to that, but there is a groundswell of emotion and protest in the country, mostly among women but also many good men, that know that this violence against women has to stop and the silence has to stop as well. People should be able to come forward and let people know they've been assaulted and make sure their case is pursued as best as it can be, so that they achieve justice and perpetrators achieve justice, and men stop committing violence against women.

MACMILLAN: I will just mention for our viewers that you can see in the corner of our screen live shots of these demonstrations taking place around the country in Sydney and in Brisbane, so we'll keep you up to date with that. Madeleine King, the organisers of today's rally were offered a meeting with the Prime Minister in his office. Should they have taken up that opportunity, given the opportunity that it would have given them to address these issues with him?

KING: That’s obviously a matter for them. I do note, they did not want to have a meeting behind closed doors, and I understand that is a reflection of what they're trying to achieve in greater openness of these issues. These issues have been kept in the dark, in this place, in this Parliament, but around the country, for far too long. So I understand their thinking behind that. Having said that, any opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister is one that's worth taking. But if it's their view that they would like the Prime Minister to come and attend the rally and hear from them in public, I think that's justified too, and there is no real excuse to not go. I mean, we know everyone's busy and of course the Prime Minister should be the most busy person in this building. But nonetheless, at this really important moment in Australia and Australia's treatment of women, when we've got the Australian of the Year being a victim of sexual assault and abuse, why wouldn't you make the time to attend this rally, which was peaceful. It was quite inspiring, quite frankly, also very emotional, but there was no harm in going.

MACMILLAN: Amanda Stoker, can I get your response to that? Should the Prime Minister have attended, and should the organisers have taken this chance to speak with him in his office?

STOKER: Prime Ministers don't go to protests and marches. Prime Ministers run the country. Marches happen outside when people want to say something different to what's going on. And to be offered the opportunity to critically and constructively engage with an interested Prime Minister on the issue about which they were concerned. Well, Minister Payne offered as well, I might add. The fact that they weren't prepared to so engage, I think highlights the partisan politics that drove the establishment of this group. I acknowledge there are many good people with great intentions who participate, but there is a partisan element to this, and I think it's very important that we examine the refusal to take a meeting with Minister Payne or the Prime Minister for the reflection of their partisan objectives that they truly had today, and as I said before, those in glass houses, politically, can't throw stones.

MACMILLAN: Can you expand on that? What do you see is the partisan element of this?

STOKER: Well, the partisan element is demonstrated when the people who have organised the protest don't actually want to engage with the people who have responsibility for making this right, who are doing so in good faith, who have announced an inquiry, they’ve set up a counselling line, they're implementing the reports. There's progress here that could very well be the subject of constructive engagement, but they weren't interested in that.

MACMILLAN: Madeleine King, has published comments, reportedly from a private Facebook group, making allegations of sexual harassment and aggressive behaviour within Labor. Are you aware of any of that kind of behaviour taking place within the ALP?

KING: It is not something I've experienced directly, but male entitlement in this country is not restricted to the Liberal and National parties. There's no doubt about it. This is a place, Parliament is a place, where male entitlement is on full view a lot of the time. That's born of a generational dominance of men in this place, so it does happen. It shouldn't happen. I am grateful that the women that work for us as MPs have found this space to express the issues they are facing, and I hope now with a new code of conduct after a review that went on for some time within the party, that they feel free to come forward and speak about these issues, because there's no place for bullying. It doesn't work, it's counterproductive to the good work we all try and achieve in this place. And it only serves to hold women back, and that's not good enough. It's not good for the women of the party. It's not good for women more generally, and they should feel free to come and tell their stories. Having said that, I admit, when you are in that situation it's easier said than done to talk about your stories because there is pressure on you and people perceive pressure for their jobs into the future. That shouldn't be the case, and we'll work hard to make sure it's not the case in the future.

STOKER: Are you concerned specifically about how staffers are treated within Labor, and what do you think needs to happen right now to try to fix that?

KING: I'm concerned about how staffers are treated everywhere, but of course I'm concerned about the staffers in my movement, the people that I work with, the people that we depend upon as elected representatives to help us do our jobs. Right now, what I think needs to happen is MPs and the leadership of the party need to make sure that the young women or, for that matter, young men who may feel the subject of such bullying and aggressive behaviour are empowered to be able to speak to someone and have their stories heard, listened to, believed, and action taken against people that are perpetrating the bullying. 

MACMILLAN: Amanda Stoker, Christian Porter is away this week. You're the Minister assisting the Attorney General. Do you know when he'll be back and how is his absence being felt by the Government, particularly during this sitting week?

STOKER: The Government's getting on with it, and that means that the legislative agenda we had planned out is being put into effect. Minister Cash is doing a great job in the role, and I am, as always, enjoying supporting her. I think it's really important to note, though, particularly given we are talking about the Attorney-General that for all of the allegations or the criticism that's been made of him, he's today filed defamation proceedings in which there will be as part of a fair, balanced court process, done by established rules, designed to ensure that fairness, an opportunity for those who want to ventilate the factual basis for the allegations to do exactly that. The ABC will have the opportunity to plead truth as its defence, should it wish to in the defamation proceedings, so that as the AG does his best to clear his name, those on the other side will have their opportunity to put forward all the evidence they've got to back in their point of view. That is the fair way to get the independent hearing rather than some sort of show trial or trial by mob that some have argued for in this place.

MACMILLAN: I want to touch very briefly on the West Australian election before we go. Madeleine King, you are a WA MP. What lessons do you think that Anthony Albanese should be taking from this victory? It was obviously a huge victory for Mark McGowan, but the Liberals have dominated WA at a federal level for some time now.

KING: Yeah, it's a remarkable election result in Western Australia. It's something I don't think anyone predicted, quite frankly. The lessons to be learned from Mark McGowan is that strong leadership counts. I think a really important aspect of this election was the strong work done on choosing candidates, and I think that's where the Liberal Party, that's the work they failed to do in the four years since the election in 2017. That showed when they had candidates going quite rogue, and saying some pretty wacky stuff, from conspiracy theories to the point of anti-vaccination type stuff, which is dreadful in a time we're trying to vaccinate people against COVID. So I think it's on the ground community work too, I think is going to be very important in any election from here on in. It always has been. But even more important now in times following the crisis of COVID.

MACMILLAN: Amanda Stoker, the Liberals in WA have been reduced to just a few seats. How long is it going to take the party to rebuild in the West now?

STOKER: It often takes a long time to recover from a defeat of that size, and I don't envy their task. I've got to congratulate your Western Australian colleagues because credit where it's due, the Western Australian people have spoken there. But the risk that now comes is that with such an enormous majority that hubris sets in and that it's very easy to become out of touch with the real needs of people in Western Australia, and I'll be imploring my colleagues to do everything they can to make sure that Labor are held to account with that enormous majority.

MACMILLAN: Alright, we'll need to leave it there. Amanda Stoker and Madeleine King, thank you very much for your time.