SUBJECTS: Malcolm Roberts’ comments on sexual harassment; 18C.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good morning. I just wanted to start by saying a few words about Senator Malcolm Roberts’ comments last night. He seemed to be saying that we should weaken protections against sexual harassment. This is an extraordinary thing when one in four women experience sexual harassment in the workplace, and a recent report from universities said that 70 per cent of respondents had experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault on Australian university campuses. It’s for Senator Roberts to explain just what he thinks is wrong with Australian sexual harassment laws, and why it should be easier to sexually harass people in Australia. I’d also like to hear from the leader of One Nation, from Pauline Hanson, whether she agrees with these comments. Whether workplace sexual harassment, sexual harassment on our university campuses, in our schools and on our streets, should be easier.

This is the latest in a long line of extraordinary comments from One Nation, from defending Vladimir Putin, to suggesting that the Port Arthur massacre was faked, to saying that 9-11 was faked, to telling Australian parents that they should reconsider having their children vaccinated. From One Nation’s support for cuts to penalty rates, cuts to social security benefits. It’s up to the One Nation leader to explain whether she supports her Senator’s comments that it should be easier to sexually harass someone in Australia. Any questions?

JOURNALIST: I missed the first part of that but I caught the Malcolm Roberts bit. Do you find it extraordinary that he made those comments and then conceded at the end that he hadn’t read the legislation? He suggested the legislation went too far but then conceded he hadn’t read it.

PLIBERSEK: Well isn’t this the problem with One Nation? I mean, there’s a lot of speaking before they think. You can’t say that laws are wrong and need to be rewritten, and then concede that you don’t know what those laws contain.

JOURNALIST: And today we’re seeing a showdown, in at least the Coalition party room, over the Racial Discrimination Act. Where do you see that going and how would you best characterise how Mr Turnbull has conducted himself over this whole thing?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think Malcolm Turnbull’s shown all his characteristic weakness on this issue. He originally said that this was not an important issue for the Coalition. I’ve even heard the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, say this won’t mean a single extra job. They were both right, and they should have stuck to their guns. The trouble is they’re both on limited time, they know that their colleagues are undermining them, they know that their future is limited, so they’re throwing a bone to the hard right of the Liberal Party. I think everybody knows that the experience with bullies is the more you give them, the more you give in, the more they come back for. And that’s just what’s happening to Malcolm Turnbull on issue after issue. Why should it be easier to make racist hate speeches in Australia? No one can explain to me how that benefits the Australian community at large. And frankly, no one can explain to me, when you’ve got a Prime Minister who bangs on about jobs and growth, that this has suddenly become the priority of the Government. It is absurd.

JOURNALIST: Do you think these changes will live and die in the party room? Can you see them getting through the Senate?

PLIBERSEK: Look, it’s very hard to know what will happen without a specific proposition before us. I think the bigger problem here is that the Australian Parliament, the Liberal Party in Australia in particular, are wasting their time debating why it should be easier to make racist hate speech, when we’ve got a crisis before us. We’ve got an energy crisis, where our businesses are telling us that they will close down if they can’t get cheap, affordable electricity in the future. We’ve got a debt and deficit crisis, they’ve tripled the deficit, they’ve added $100 billion to net debt. Unemployment is higher than it was during the Global Financial Crisis. Underemployment is at historic highs - 1.1 million people underemployed in Australia. Wages are flatlining while company profits continue to grow. Wages are actually going backwards. We have a crisis in Australia of confidence and for ordinary Australians who have seen their wages cut, or not growing, a new threat to penalty rates, additional cuts to family tax benefits, they really would be wondering how they got a government that was so out of touch with their lives that 18C would become the thing that they’re obsessing about.

JOURNALIST: There’s a suggestion that the words ‘humiliate’ and ‘intimidate’ will stay in the Act, surely that’s a fair compromise between the two sides, so that there’s a resolution?

PLIBERSEK: Look, a resolution to what? We’ve got a law that is working well to protect people from racial hate speech. Why don’t we just leave it alone and actually focus on what makes a difference to people’s lives? Their pay, their conditions of work, the fact that their kids need a job, the fact that their kids can’t get an apprenticeship, the fact that we’ve seen cuts to school funding, $100 000 university degrees, Medicare under threat, an unpredictable future when we’ve got businesses telling us that they’re going to close their doors if they can’t get reliable and cheaper gas, and a Government that is completely off-topic, completely missing the point about what is driving our economy and what is happening in ordinary peoples’ lives every day in Australia - obsessing about this crazy detail instead. Thanks everyone.