SUBJECTS: Senator Cash; university residential colleges.

FRAN KELLY, PRESENTER: Minister Michaelia Cash is under pressure to offer an unqualified apology for casting aspersions on female staffers who work for the Labor Party. After first defending her remarks the Minister later withdrew her threat to quote “name every young woman in Bill Shorten's office of which rumours in this place abound.” Some of her colleagues are defending the Minister, but not former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who says it was a bad lapse by Michaelia Cash.

TONY ABBOT CLIP: “There’s been far too much cheap smear, and it’s time it ends.  It must end.  It’s bad when it comes from the Labor Party, it’s bad when it comes from the Liberal Party, and it’s particularly bad when it comes from a Minister of the Crown. I do not know what was going through her mind at the time. I gather she’s apologised. She certainly should. And let’s hear no more of it.”

KELLY: That’s Tony Abbott speaking on radio 2GB.  Well Michaelia Cash's ugly outburst has refocused attention on the treatment of women in the workplace, it comes hot on the heels of that shocking report this week into the extent of sexual assault and harassment at university colleges. Tanya Plibersek is the Shadow Minister for Education, and for Women, and Deputy Labor Leader. Tanya Plibersek, welcome back to breakfast. 


KELLY: So Michaelia Cash was threatening to air rumours about female staffers in Bill Shorten’s office, she was going to put that on the record in Estimates. She has withdrawn those comments. Is that action enough?

PLIBERSEK: You just played Tony Abbott saying that Michaelia Cash has apologised, she hasn't actually apologised to the young women that she has maligned in this way and I think common decency would require her to do that. It is actually still a pretty male dominated environment, Parliament House, and I remember as a young staffer 25 years ago, I was quite often the only person, only young woman in the room. You have got to assert yourself, you expect to be treated as a colleague and a professional and having this sort of outburst from the former Minister for Women really does make it that little bit harder again. It really takes me back to 1973, the sort of things that were being said about Elizabeth Reid, Gough Whitlam's women's adviser. I really thought we had moved on.

KELLY: Well Bridget McKenzie, the Deputy Leader of the Nats said on Insiders on Sunday that she described Parliament as a hyper-masculine environment, would disagree with that?

PLIBERSEK: I think it is a little better in the Labor party because we are at almost 50% women MPs. So we are at about 46% or 47% now, and I think that critical mass does make a big difference to culture, it’s one of the reasons that we have been so determined to increase women's representation at the elected level but also at the staffing level. But you know, yeah there are more men than women around here, and having someone sort of intimate that these young women are somehow less than just the fine professionals, hardworking, dedicated, intelligent professionals they are is really disappointing, very unfortunate. 

KELLY: A few listeners have written in asking what was the context of Michaelia Cash's comments, everyone has seen that element of it, everyone has seen the photographs, Labor Senator Doug Cameron had been asking the Minister about whether her new Chief of Staff who was due to come on stream, whether they has come from another agency or whether they had come from another Liberal office. Why did Doug Cameron want to know if her new Chief of Staff had come from another Liberal office, what was the point of that question? That's where she took offence.

PLIBERSEK: I think it was a pretty irrational way to take offence...

KELLY: But why was he asking?

PLIBERSEK: Because there has been a lot of movements form the Minister’s office to some of the agencies like the Building and Construction Commission, and it is quite proper to know whether organisations like the Building and Construction Commission are being stacked with former Liberal staffers. 

KELLY: Sure but that is a different thing from why- did it come from another Liberal office...

PLIBERSEK: This was part of a series of questions, I can’t answer what he was asking about. I have no idea what the implication of-  you are trying to assert there is some implication, I have no clue what it might be and I still don't understand why any Minister would respond in the way that she did. 

KELLY: Do you think we have crossed a line, is that what has happened here in the wake of the Barnaby Joyce focus on his private life, have we crossed a line - are private lives of politicians now open season?

PLIBERSEK: Well Fran, I think it’s really important to say we in the Labor Party have actually not been persuing Barnaby Joyce about his private life, we have been asking about the expenditure of taxpayer funds, it was the Prime Minister who stood up in his courtyard and moralised about Barnaby Joyce's private life and said that Parliament House, we had to change the Code of Conduct because it had to be a better workplace for women. That was actually one of the reasons he gave for changing the Code of Conduct. So I think Michaelia Cash's outburst completely undermines the Prime Minister’s stated effort to make this a better workplace for women. 

KELLY: Tony Abbott as we heard described it as a cheap smear, Simon Birmingham, the education minister, has said that your moral outrage is just a political tactic, is it?

PLIBERSEK: That's pretty disappointing isn't it? I can't tell you Fran, these, both men and women young staffers working here they work 14 -16 hour days, they're away from their families, it’s hard work. It is harder if you are a woman because there's fewer of them. I think for Ministers to be piling on to people who can't defend themselves and then refusing to apologise after maligning their character I think it is just very unfortunate.

KELLY:  Just before I leave this, where do you think it should go now? Should the Minister apologise? Should the Prime Minister make some public comment? What should be the impact of this do you think?

PLIBERSEK: I think Michaelia Cash should walk down to Bill Shorten's office and ask to see the female staff in a group and look them in the eye and say "I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to make life harder for you. I slipped up, I'm sorry" that would be the best solution here.

KELLY:  You are listening to RN breakfast it’s 16 minutes to 8, our guest is Tanya Plibersek. She is the Deputy Labor Leader and the Shadow Minister for Women and for Education. Tanya Plibersek this comes in the same week we had the Red Zone report which detailed the extent of hazing and misogyny and indeed assault in university residential colleges. Today you are giving a speech and you are going to put the universities on notice. What are you threatening them with? 

PLIBERSEK: It’s just depressing isn't it. 30 years ago when I was at the University of Technology these stories particularly about the Sydney University colleges - they abounded 30 years ago. And 30 years later we have seen three reports over the course of about the last year into sexual assault on campus. More recently this one that really focuses on the residential colleges and it seems like so little has changed. Now I know some colleges and some universities have made an effort to change the culture, but it hasn't gone far enough. It's not wide spread enough. The idea that you can send your 18 or 19 year old son or daughter off to college and they can have this sort of experience, they have been protected at school from this sort of behaviour and suddenly they're fair game for older students in particular, in some cases staff, is completely unacceptable. And one of the figures that really shocked me in this Fran, was that of almost 600 complaints over a five year period – almost 600 complaints of sexual misconduct, about a quarter of which were actual rape, only six students had been expelled after that. Almost 600 complaints. 

KELLY:  That's a shocking figure isn’t it? That’s a shocking finding.

PLIBERSEK: Just six students expelled, and this comes on top of the fact in the same report the estimate is only about 1% of assaults are actually reported, even the most serious assaults, so we have a very serious culture that is causing harm to many, many young people. And ideally the colleges would sort it out themselves, if the colleges can't sort it out themselves the universities should take action. It is not good enough for the universities to say "well these are independent colleges".

KELLY:  Well they are independent colleges and they do have their own acts - so what are you saying if Labor was in government what are you saying to the universities you would do? 

PLIBERSEK: For a start these students are residents of the colleges but they are students of the university and so for the university to say "we are powerless to protect them" is just not good enough. Now we would have to work with the State Governments because as you say many of these colleges are set up under independent acts governed by State Governments. But there is a role for national leadership I believe. I think we can talk to the states about a national regulatory regime if we have to. At this stage nothing is off the table, it just cannot continue for another 30 years. I cannot countenance the idea that generations more young people will be subjected to these hazing rituals and most particularly to a culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

KELLY: And all these stories we've been talking about go to treatment of respect for women by and large. In the recent allegations around Barnaby Joyce there has been a claim of sexual harassment and misconduct lodged against him confidentially by a woman in WA. That confidential complaint is now public, her identity has been made public. You talked about 1% of assault, I'm not saying this is an assault, but actually reported, goes to the fact that women find it hard often or men and women find it hard to report these things. What should be done now and what could be done by the political class or the parties to reassure others who might want to speak up that it is safe to do so. Is there some action that should be taken? 

PLIBERSEK: Absolutely I think that is actually one of the worst elements of this whole two week period where we have been talking about the former Deputy Prime Minister, the identification of the woman who has made a complaint will absolutely discourage other women from coming forward. And I think the National Party are very clearly saying they think that people in the Liberal Party did this to push Barnaby Joyce to resign. Whoever did it really has to answer for their own conduct in this because they've made a political judgement to release information for their own political convenience that is potentially damaging for this woman, but certainly damaging to the culture of political parties and the willingness for other people to come forward. Every political party should have strong protections for staff, for members of parliament obviously, for people who work in the political party, but also very importantly for people who volunteer or come into contact in other ways with the political party it should be very clearly identified how to complain, who to complain to, and that your complaint will be kept confidential. 

KELLY: Tanya Plibersek thank you very much for joining us.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you Fran.

KELLY: Tanya Plibersek is the Shadow Minister for education and women and we did request an interview with Michaelia Cash but we haven't had an answer as yet this morning.