SABRA LANE: Prime Minister, good morning.
PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Sabra.
LANE: How would you characterise these past few weeks?
PRIME MINISTER: I think it has been a very traumatic period of time. But, frankly, how politicians feel about this time is not the point. The point here is, I think, what has emerged over this past month here in Canberra which goes to a much bigger issue that women have been putting up with all their lives. And no just them, but their mothers and their grandmothers. What I think has been brought to light here is a much more broader issue that we as a country, we as a society, have to be dealing with, and that's really where my focus has gone, not the politics of Canberra. And these matters, they have alerted, I think, a much deeper, much more difficult challenge and that's where my attention is focusing.
LANE: OK, we'll get to that in a tick. It's been five weeks since former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins revealed she was allegedly raped. Have you attempted actually to call her and say sorry and offer her job back, given this was her dream job?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that offer has been there. I made that statement a month ago and the apology was there. And in fact, after these terrible incidents that took place, which weren't known to certainly me at the time, and she was re-employed after the election. And then some time later, you know, the events have been as they've been reported and that is the case. I mean, she did a great job when she was working for the Coalition and I thank her for all the great work she did. I can understand, Sabra, that why she wanted to leave and particularly because of the physical building that she was working in. And one of the more traumatic, as there were many, experiences that she relayed was just the sheer physical act of coming into this building was just too much. I totally understand that.
LANE: But have you called, have you actually tried to call her yourself?
PRIME MINISTER: No, I haven't been in direct contact with her. No, I haven't. I didn't know Brittany when she worked here. I know she was in the building, just like there are large numbers of people who work here. The apology I offered in the Parliament, nationally, publicly, was when I sincerely meant.
LANE: Can you categorically say that your office hasn't been backgrounding against one of her loved ones?
PRIME MINISTER: No one, there has been no one in the gallery, nothing has been raised with my office from anyone in the gallery making any of those accusations or any discomfort about anything that my office has done. People make allegations all the time second, third-hand. But there's no one who has raised that with my Chief of Staff out of the gallery, no.
LANE: Have you actually got to the bottom of why your staff didn’t actually didn't tell you this happened back in 2019?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, they didn't know back in 2019. They didn't know until, they didn't know until this year, like me, about the sexual assault allegation. That was not known until this year, as I've told the Parliament. Now, I was pretty, pretty angry that I wasn't told over that weekend when they knew on the Friday and I was told on the Monday. But that's when my office became, as I've said very clearly, that they became aware of the sexual assault allegation. Then I found out about it on the following Monday, and it was quite a disturbing and confronting piece of news. And it's been the same ever since then.
LANE: But she's claimed that she talked to an adviser who works in your office, that he called her around the time of the 4 Corners show last year, and also that one of the people who now works in your office worked at Linda Reynolds office at the time and she knew. So you're saying that you haven't actually talked to them to find out why they didn't tell you about this?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, in relation to the staff member who now works in my office, they weren't working in my office at that time. They were working the Defence Minister’s, sorry, the Defence Industry Minister's office when that occurred. And these were confidential matters that were raised by Brittany Higgins within that office and as has been reported and as has been said, it was the express wish that those matters were not further shared. So those confidences were respected in terms of others in the building in relation to the allegation of sexual assault. And even the Minister, Minister Cash, that Brittany went on to work for, did not become aware of this until this year. And when she became aware of that, offered to actually bring that information here to me and as has been reported, Brittany did not want that to occur. So this suggestion that this was common knowledge in this building for years is simply not true.
LANE: The Tasmanian Premier has written to you asking you to consider an allegation that Liberal Senator Eric Abetz made offensive comments about Ms Higgins, effectively blaming her. It's something that the Senator strenuously denies. Do you believe him?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's not how I would characterise the letters from the Premier. The Premier has not added any further information. Senator Abetz has absolutely denied this completely. And, you know, he's made that statement. These other statements, I understand, were made under privilege in the Tasmanian Parliament. And so, I mean, I would find those sorts of comments, as I'm sure anyone would be, completely appalling. But Senator Abetz, who is a longstanding member of the Senate, he's a longstanding figure in public life and has a strong record when it comes to addressing these issues very seriously, has absolutely denied that.
LANE: The Premier has he asked you to look at it further at all? What has he asked and does it merit further investigation?
PRIME MINISTER: He's just raised the matter and saying it was raised with him. But he has no additional information and he doesn't corroborate or confirm any of these any. He's just simply mentioned this matter to me. But Senator Abetz’s clear denial of that, I think, is a very strong one.
LANE: Why do you believe him and not the female Tasmanian politician?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I was not a party to the conversation. And so, you know, in this country, if people make allegations, they can make them. This has been strenuously denied. And so I think it would be very unfair to draw a conclusion here when, you know, the facts are in such dispute.
LANE: To a looming Cabinet reshuffle, you were apparently considering moving Christian Porter as Attorney-General. Why do you do that when you're backing his defamation case against the ABC?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm not speculating on any of these decisions. All I've said in the Parliament this week is that in relation to Mr Porter's return to the Cabinet, I've been considering the advice of the Solicitor-General about conflicts of interest that may arise in relation to that defamation action against the ABC and the way that they've handled these matters and I'll consider that in also in terms of the ministerial code of conduct, which also deals with perceived conflicts of interest. So I'm working through those issues with the Attorney at the moment. He's not returning to work for some another week or so yet and that will be done in time for his return.
LANE: And how do you drop Linda Reynolds from Defence without it being considered a reprimand for the handling of the Brittany Higgins matter?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, you're making assumptions based on speculation which are being reported in the media.
LANE: Yeah, they’re pretty widely reported and it seems from outside the bubble, Prime Minister, that everyone has the same information.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I can't speak to what media report. All I can say is that when I make decisions on these matters, I'll communicate them and my reasons for it.
LANE: Is your leadership safe?
PRIME MINISTER: Absolutely. What suggestions are you picking up there? No, I've been very grateful for the tremendous support I've had from all of my colleagues, from my Cabinet, my Ministers, all the way through to my party room. They have just, I've just been overwhelmed by the amount of support that I've received from my colleagues this week. Our Party has never been more united.
LANE: When you talked about earlier that the problem of the treatment of women goes right around Australia, you've had the Respect@Work report from the Sex Discrimination Commissioner for more than a year now. The executive summary of that says that there is a sense of urgency here. When will you implement all of those 55 recommendations?
PRIME MINISTER: I said yesterday that the Government will be giving its response to this and I've personally taken this on. This was a matter that was being handled by the Minister previously. I am personally taking this on. I've been meeting with the acting Attorney-General and the new Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General Amanda Stoker, and we've been working through that and we will be giving a fulsome response, a complete response before the Budget. But I would note that of the 55 recommendations and, you know, these recommendations are across a broad range of areas, 20 of those specifically deal only with Australian Government action. Nine of those we've actually already responded to. There are 12 that deal with the states and territory governments and the acting Attorney-General is writing to the ministers in the states to seek their responses to those matters. I'm not aware of any official responses that have come from any state or territory government on these matters. There's 13 that address independent government agencies and regulators such as the AHRC and SafeWork Australia, the three that deal with education providers and another three that deal with business and industry. So they deal with quite a cross-section of, and I think that reflects, Sabra, the point that there's no one government, one agency here that deals even with the matters that are associated legally with respect at work. But there's an even broader agenda here that even goes beyond respect at work. It goes to women's safety and the National Action Plan. I mean, already a national summit was part of the development of the National Action Plan. I look forward that going ahead. I mean, over a billion dollars has been spent on those action plans now, over the course of our Government. I mean, Julia Gillard started that process. It was a great process. We supported it then. We support it now. And in particular, last year or during COVID, our focus was very much on getting additional supports and protections for women during the lockdowns. We were very concerned, I've got to tell you, Sabra, about rising incidences of domestic violence and abuse and online abuse and things of that nature that would occur through COVID. And that's why we put in significant resources last year. That's where we were focusing our attention to protect women, in particular, and many vulnerable people during the course. The other thing we did, Sabra, is we've been acting on these issues in social media. This is, I think, a huge issue where women are subject to vile abuse, stalking, harassment, and the work we've been doing about making it a safer, a safer place. The e-Safety Commissioner, Julie Inman-Grant, is doing a phenomenal job working with the Government to put tougher laws in place to ensure that that is a space where women are also safe.
LANE: You've said that you want more women in the Liberal Party. You're happy to consider quotas. What political capital are you prepared to expend to get the Liberal Party state divisions like WA, Tasmania and Queensland on board?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I always start with my own house, Sabra. I'm a member of the New South Wales division and what I want to see is more women in parliament. And I want to see more women in my ministry. Now, no Prime Minister, Liberal or Labor, have put more women in their Cabinet than I have. And in fact, the Cabinet that I have has more women in it and that's more than the last Labor Cabinet, which was voted on by the entire Labor caucus.
LANE: But your New South Wales division, the Liberal politician Catherine Cusack, who's a Liberal, says the party division in your state is run by boys club, drunk on power and alcohol.
PRIME MINISTER: The New South Wales premier is Gladys Berejiklian, a female Premier of New South Wales and the Premier Gladys Berejiklian and I have been discussing these matters and we share many views on this topic. I mean, I remember when I was state director of the Liberal Party in New South Wales, Gladys was running for Willoughby. And, you know, there were many women that we were bringing to the Parliament back then, people like Judy Hopwood, many others. And, you know, I've always been very committed to this. But what matters is the outcome. What I've simply said is I don't think, and I've said this to the party organisation at every level, federal and state, that we must achieve more here and different divisions, I suspect, will come up with better ways of achieving it. It's not about this measure or that measure. I just want what works. Just give me what works, party organisation. The Liberal Party, and the same is true for the Nationals, we want to see more here. And so the party organisation has to seriously address that. Now, if there's any suggestion that they're not addressing quotas because they think the Prime Minister is against it, well, that's not right. I'm not against it. What I'm more for, though, is getting more women here because the women I have in my Cabinet do an extraordinary job. And the women I’ve brought in to the Assistant Ministry, I just mentioned you Amanda Stoker, she's one of the most bright and intelligent people to come into this Parliament and I was thrilled to be able to bring her into the Executive so early in her Parliamentary career.
LANE: It looks like the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine exports from Europe to Australia are unlikely to resume. That's almost four million doses we won't get. 50 million will be made locally. Do you need to consider buying another vaccine like the Moderna one from the US as a backup?
PRIME MINISTER: No. Well, we've got the Pfizer vaccines and they're coming through and we've also got the contracts on Novavax as well. But the key thing here, Sabra, there have been many decisions that are made during COVID, but closing the borders early on in the piece, the declaration of the pandemic, I won't go over all those again. I think Australians know that we've acted swiftly and promptly and effectively on those. But the decision in August of last year, in the middle of the chaos and crisis of the second Victorian wave, we took the decision to say we must be able to manufacture them ourselves here in Australia. So we sat down with CSL. We struck the deal to be able to do that, we built the capability to actually manufacture it. They are now rolling off the line, filled and finished out of Parkhill down there in Melbourne, you know, over more than 900,000 of them coming out a week. And that will be then holding back second doses, going out into the community, over 1,000 GPs building up to 5,000 or thereabouts in the weeks ahead. And so the decision to have a domestic manufacturing capability here has been the big change, a game changer. We would not have a vaccination programme were it not for the wisdom of that decision that my Government took.
LANE: The New South Wales floods have devastated a huge amount of the state. The Federal Government's already sending hundreds of Defence personnel to help. Are you prepared to spend whatever it takes to clean it up?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's our form. That's exactly what we did on the bushfires, sharing the costs of clean up at over $2 billion immediately committed and that's rolled out and that is our form. I mean, the Premier and I have been talking about this over the weekend, even as the flood levels continued to rise. And whether that's, you know, the work that is being done right now with the ADF personnel, you know, we've already got 290 out there now, 170 on 24 hours notice to move and a further 120 being readied. The clean up plan is one that we will be a total partner on. As you know, I was up there and I saw the devastation out on the Hawkesbury and it was just terrible to know that at that very time, pretty much last night, sorry, the night before and the early hours of the morning a man was man was perishing. And also, I stress, it's not just in New South Wales.
LANE: It’s Queensland.
PRIME MINISTER: We’ve seen in Queensland already where they've also seen a sad fatality there as well. And there's the inland flooding that is occurring as well. It's thankfully not what we're seeing on the scale of what was happening in north Queensland several years ago where, again, there was no effort spared there, Sabra. So I think my form on here is very strong.
LANE: Many hundreds of families and farmers have lost everything. Some won't have insurance. Will you consider a special levy to help fund and rebuild and help those families recover too?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we've been dealing with these issues now for a long period of time and we've had a series of different grants and other support mechanisms as people emerge from floods. I mean, I was very involved personally in the design of those with Shane Stone up there in North Queensland. We learn a lot from that experience. That also helped us to deal with the other issues then that flowed from COVID. So we'll work with our flood relief agency, which is headed up by Shane Stone. That'll be working with Joe Buffone, the head of the Emergency Management, Resilience New South Wales with Shane Fitzsimmons. No shortage of good people who know what they're doing here, and we'll work closely with them as to how best to ensure the recovery from this most recent terrible event.
LANE: Prime Minister, thanks for your time this morning.
PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot, Sabra. Good to speak with you.