SUBJECT: Labor’s task force to address sexual assault and harassment at universities.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good Morning thank you so much for coming out this morning. I am joined today by Renee Carr from Fair Agenda, Kate Crossin from the National Union of Students, Sharna Bremner the founder the director of End Rape on Campus and Allison Henry from Hunting Ground Australia, and I am very pleased to be joined by these very impressive women because they have been campaigning long and hard for what we are announcing today; an independent task force set up to ensure that we actually end rape on campus. I was a university students here about 30 years ago and 30 years ago we were dealing with instances right across Australia of sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus. I know some great efforts have been made in the intervening period, but the numbers tell the story. Sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus is still all too common. A survey a couple of years ago based on 2016 figures, suggested that just over half of all university students had experienced sexual harassment on campus. That's about half a million people, we have got about 1,000,000 students in Australia, and about 7 per cent had experienced sexual assault, 70,000 in one year, based on those numbers. These figures tell an alarming story about a lack of safety on our campuses around Australia. Another survey said that of around 600 formal complaints made to universities including 145 sexual assaults, rapes, only six student perpetrators has been asked to leave university, had been expelled because of their behaviour, because of the assaults they had committed. I think it is extraordinary given almost 600 formal complaints universities only took firm action in the case of six students. When you talk to these young women, you will hear from them in a little while, you will hear of case after case reported every week where students are making complaints that are not being addressed adequately by universities. So I do commend the work that has already begun on our university campuses to make them safer but I also have to be realistic about the fact that assault and harassment on our campuses is all too common. If we saw some of this behaviour in our schools, as parents we would rain down hell upon those schools and it just is inexplicable to me that we've put so much effort into keeping students safe in school and yet those same teenagers, three months after they graduate from high school, go into an environment that statistically is so much less safe for them. 

This independent task force will be set up at the cost of $1.8 million over three years. What we expect from the task force is that it will hold universities to account. It will make sure that where universities say they are using best practice to keep their students safe and apply best practice in the case where there is an assault or harassment occurring, that they can be held to account on those very important commitments. It's also a place where students who feel that their complaints haven't been dealt with appropriately or seriously can take their complaint, we'll be able to track numbers, the numbers of assaults occurring and make sure that those numbers are decreasing, that cases are being dealt with appropriately but also that our prevention efforts are being effective. If universities are not dealing with cases adequately there are consequences available to us through this task force exercise, we will be able to highlight areas of inaction and in some cases apply fines, the task force will be able to recommend to the universities standards authority TEQSA or to the minister, if I'm elected, the application of fines and in extreme circumstances even the withholding of funding. These are very serious issues and they deserve to be dealt with in this very serious way. I'm going to ask Kate Crossin, the National Union of Students Women's Officer, to say a few words.

KATE CROSSIN, NATIONAL UNION OF STUDENTS WOMEN'S OFFICER: Thanks Tanya. For young people, we're always told that our time at university will be some of the most memorable times of our lives but what we're not told is from the moment we set foot on campus we're more likely to have our memories tainted by sexual assault or sexual harassment. Too many of us have heard, or shared our experiences of sexual violence on campus or at colleges and too many of us have been let down by the institutions that should value our safety and wellbeing over their financial interests. Student, survivors and activists around the country today and breathing a sigh of relief at this announcement. We have been begging for action for too long and we are really proud to see that Labor has committed to joining us in the struggle to keep students safe. This announcement today is going to, for the first time, provide a mechanism for government to take forceful and effective action when universities and residential colleges fail to protect students and we see this commitment to a national task force as a commitment to ending sexual violence on campuses and we're really glad that this is happening.

PLIBERSEK: Thanks very much, and we're going to hear now from Renee Carr from Fair Agenda.

RENEE CARR, FAIR AGENDA: Sexual violence is the most significant safety issue on our campuses right now.  We thank the Labor Party for listening to our joint calls for a task force and for recognising that independent oversight of the university sector is needed to address this issue. Right now, too many universities and residences are failing to do what it takes to address sexual violence on campus; and students are paying the price. We know there are universities taking months to get back to urgent student safety concerns. Survivors of rape unable to access the counselling services they need; and residential college environments where students who speak up about their sexual assault are targeted. Students deserve better. Right now, dangerous institutional failures are too often only being revealed when a brave student survivor speaks out about their assault - often at huge personal cost. We've been calling for a task force because we know oversight, transparency and accountability is what's needed when a university or residence jeopardises student safety. 

PLIBERSEK: Thanks so much. Have we got any questions?

JOURNALIST: I mean, some of the things that stand out to me is the two numbers that you were mentioning [inaudible] if this was happening at our schools, there’d be outrage, and then just months later it happens at university and it's sort of, not such an outrage. I mean, what's a counter for that? [inaudible]

PLIBERSEK: Look, I can't really explain why we are so careful to protect students in schools and yet, by the time they go to university, there's an assumption they can look after themselves and it's not important to have institutional care and oversight to protect them. I guess, part of it is the assumption that, as students get older, there's an automatic level of misbehaviour. I just don't accept that. I don't accept that binge drinking and sexual assault are part of a normal university experience - I just don't accept that. Thirty years ago, I was women's officer at University of Technology and my fellow women's officer, Sandra Bennett and I, ran campaigns to make our university safer; and it really breaks my heart that women's officers and other student activists around Australia still have to do that today, thirty years later. And, it doesn't just make me sad that we've - we have seen progress - but we haven't seen enough progress. It makes me worried, I've got a 17 year old daughter who's going to university next year. I want her to be safe, I want all of the young women I've met through her to be safe; and young men, too. You think about the tragedy experienced by the Kelly family not so long ago - losing both their sons, including one after his experience at university. It is not okay that we spend so much time and energy, and invest in our universities to give our young people a great experience, a great education, a great start to life - and then, for too many, it is marred by violence, assault and harassment on campus.

Not okay.

Okay, thank you.