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Monday, 7 February 1994
Page: 494

Senator KEMP (7.20 p.m.) —I am glad that Senator Richardson and Senator Crowley are in the chamber because there is a continuing debate in the community about the treatment of two former housekeepers at the Lodge who were retrenched without notice early in October last year. Senator Crowley regularly lectures this chamber on the need to advance the interests of women, which we on this side fully support, and ensure that the power and privilege of government are used in a positive not a negative way.

  The issue of the two housekeepers at the Lodge is also a matter of widespread community concern. How should the employees of the Prime Minister of this country be treated? Mr and Mrs Keating are entitled to employ whom they wish at the Lodge. What we can insist on is that employees be treated fairly and decently and that their employers do not act in a harsh or capricious manner. At the same time that these housekeepers were retrenched—without notice, I stress—the government was passing through the parliament the so-called Industrial Relations Reform Bill which imposes new obligations on private sector employers. Had Mr Keating been a private sector employer he would not only have been subject to normal common law procedures, but also, under his own act, he would have been subject to new claims for breaches of statutory duties.

  It is worth recording just what happened to these two women. On the night of Sunday, 3 October, they received a phone call at home from an officer of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet telling them not to report for duty the following day. Further, these two women were warned that if they tried to attend work the following day and attempted to enter the Lodge they would be turned away by the guards at the gate. They were directed to report to the department on the following Tuesday.

  At the department they were apparently given no reasons for their dismissal. They were not even given certificates of service. They were cautioned about the secrecy provisions contained in the Crimes Act and Public Service regulations. Imagine how anyone would feel about this treatment. Imagine how you, Mr Acting Deputy President, would feel. Senator Crowley should imagine how she would feel about being treated in this manner. One of the housekeepers had served two Prime Ministers. The other had been at the Lodge for 12 months and had been made permanent about six months previously.

  These sackings were done without any warning. I understand that some days previously the Prime Minister had expressed to one of the housekeepers his satisfaction about the performance of their duties. He had flagged to them that there would be some changes at the Lodge, but that the two housekeepers were assured of employment. Then came the infamous Sunday night telephone call. In my view, the two housekeepers were entitled to be confronted face to face by the relevant officer and given proper reasons why this seemingly harsh action was taken. This did not happen. Instead, there was just a voice on the telephone saying that they were not wanted.

  In subsequent days, after numerous requests to the department, they finally received certificates of service from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. This was three weeks after they had been sacked. The certificates of service state that the two housekeepers provided competent housekeeping services and that their services had been terminated as a result of the staffing arrangements at the Lodge. I seek leave to table the certificates of service of the two housekeepers.

  Leave granted.

Senator KEMP —It is important to note that the certificate of service states that a certificate of service is not granted to a person if, firstly, a person has been dismissed from service for any offence or misconduct of a serious nature or, secondly, a person has been guilty of frequent acts of misconduct although of a light nature. That is written on the bottom of the certificate of service.

  Some weeks later, after a response to a question that I asked at the estimates committee regarding staffing at the Lodge, it was revealed by Ms Tinney, a senior officer in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, that three staff members had been retrenched, including the two housekeepers. In contradiction of the certificates of service which I have cited, it was stated before the estimates committee that the housekeepers failed to carry out directions in relation to the use of their Mastercards.

  Ms Tinney said that they were going out and buying things without advising the department. It was alleged that they were apparently not working well together. Finally, it was suggested that they were changing rosters and not completing work that was done on particular rosters. At that time Ms Tinney admitted the housekeepers were not given any warning about their conduct, although she apparently said that changes would have to be made.

  The housekeepers have unreservedly denied all allegations of wrongdoing against them. They have sought an explanation as to the reasons for their termination of employment. Senator Gareth Evans compounded the attack on the housekeepers by raising further accusations against them in the Senate; namely, that there were at least four meetings with the staff in which the staff had been asked to improve their working relationships with one another. He also repeated the department's concerns about the credit cards which, it was said, had been drawn to their attention a number of times. These allegations are denied by the housekeepers.

  In an attempt to sort out these problems, the coalition attempted to reconvene Estimates Committee A at the end of the last session. Regrettably, this was not supported by the Australian Democrats. The dilemma has always been: how can the housekeepers have the circumstances of their termination of employment dealt with independently when faced with serious allegations by the department? As a result of those allegations they have been out of work. I understand that they are still out of work.

  Unless this parliament is prepared to inquire into the matter there are, I understand, no avenues to determine their rights and arrive at a fair and just outcome. The Members of Parliament Act precludes any court action. The statements made by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet were made under parliamentary privilege and prevent any actions for defamation. The one avenue which seems to offer some hope is for the ombudsman to independently investigate the matter and determine the circumstances of the termination of the housekeepers' employment and the basis for the allegations made by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

  I understand from media reports that the ombudsman has agreed to investigate certain matters, but there seems to be some query as to whether the ombudsman has jurisdiction. It is some three weeks after the initial complaints were made to the ombudsman and it is still not clear whether she considers herself to have jurisdiction in a number of areas.

  Mr President, I do not want to go into the technical legal arguments. The office of the ombudsman was set up to help protect the private citizen against the oppressive conduct of government. It was also an essential aspect of the ombudsman that this was an avenue of investigation when no other legal remedies were available.

  This matter needs to be quickly resolved. I would have thought that all Labor members of parliament believe individual workers are entitled to a fair go. As the saying goes, they are entitled to their day in court. Serious allegations have been made by their employer that have caused them financial loss and personal distress. This is an issue of widespread community concern, as evidenced by the media interest. This issue will not go away until justice prevails and these allegations and counter claims can be independently investigated.

  I am delighted that Senator Crowley is in the chamber because she advises the Prime Minister on women's affairs. Although she and I differ on quite a number of issues I hope that with her concern for women and her concern to see justice done she would be prepared to take this matter up and see what can be done to assist these women, to at least give them a chance to have their say and the chance to have the rights and the wrongs of the issue independently determined.

  If these matters are not resolved properly and fairly by the ombudsman I ask Senator Woodley, who is in the chamber, to strongly support any motion in his party room so that this parliament could set up an inquiry, whether it be through the estimates process or some other mechanism, to see whether we can assist these two housekeepers to obtain justice.