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Tuesday, 18 August 1992
Page: 18

Senator BISHOP —My question is directed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I refer the Minister to the very public allegations of sexual harassment involving a senior diplomat within his Department and a fellow officer whilst stationed in Bangkok. Will the Minister inform the Senate what steps have been taken to ascertain the precise facts of the case? Is it true, as has been reported, that a process of conciliation is to be carried out prior to any investigation as to the facts? If so, why has the Minister not chosen a process to establish the facts of the matter as opposed to trying to conciliate, which could lead to pressure being put on the claimant to abandon the matter? Who is responsible for overseeing the matter and reporting to the Minister?

Senator GARETH EVANS —A complaint alleging sexual harassment by a former departmental employee against Mr Richard Butler was lodged with a member of the Department's workplace harassment contact group on 24 February 1992 and subsequently with the Secretary on 8 May this year. The complainant was fully briefed on all the options available to her under Public Service regulations but asked that the matter be treated informally by the Department in the first instance. The Department is, accordingly, handling the complaint informally with the cooperation of the parties and in accordance with Public Service Commission guidelines.

  It remains open to the complainant to lodge a formal grievance under the Public Service regulations or to the Merit Protection and Review Agency or to make a complaint to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act. In order to protect the privacy of the parties, it would be quite inappropriate for me to comment any further until this matter is resolved or taken further in one or other of these directions.

Senator BISHOP —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I asked the Minister particularly who was in charge of the investigation and who was reporting to him. I asked that for a very specific reason. We have seen a number of examples in this chamber of where the Minister ducks his responsibility as a Minister. He ducked the issue of the Burkegate affair that Senator Knowles has just raised and said that he was not aware of the law. He ducked the Marshall Islands affair.

Senator Bolkus —I raise a point of order, Mr President. If Senator Bishop is to ask a supplementary question, I do not think we should be subjected to a speech before she gets to that question. I ask that she be called to order.

The PRESIDENT —Order! It has to be a supplementary question on the original question, Senator Bishop.

Senator BISHOP —The point of the preamble to the supplementary question is the fact that I asked the Minister a very simple question. I asked him who was responsible and who was reporting to him because we want to know in this chamber that he is actually paying attention to what happens in his Department as distinct from trying to blame yet another public servant in his Department. Once again we have seen it here this afternoon with the Minister trying to blame Mr Forrester. I want to know who it is, and at the same time I want to know the nature of the complaint. If there is an allegation of harassment, the options are that it must be by way of a formal grievance or one of the others the Minister outlined. I want to know. I ask who is in charge of the investigation and want to know what stage it is at.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I do not have quite the same salacious interest in the details of these matters as Senator Bishop obviously has. I do not know who is handling the matter.

Senator Bishop —I rise on a point of order, Mr President; this is a serious matter. The Minister is trying to slide away from his responsibility by using the word `salacious' as being applicable to people on this side. Mr President, I would ask you to ask him to withdraw.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I do not think it is unparliamentary, but would you just answer the supplementary question, Senator Evans.

Senator Alston —On the point of order, Mr President, there is a standing order that very explicitly says that one cannot cast improper motives upon those on either side of the House. The clear intent of that snide little remark by Senator Evans was that somehow Senator Bishop was not asking a bona fide question but was trying to satisfy some internal concern of her own. That is an improper motive and I ask you to direct that Senator Evans withdraw it.

Senator Bolkus —Mr President, on the point of order, can I suggest that if you are to take up the point of order by Senator Alston—and there might be some case for it—you also rule out the supplementary question which was full of inferences and allegations against Senator Evans.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I regarded it as a debating point and I did not think it was unparliamentary. For the better ruling of the chamber, it might be better if it be withdrawn. That is up to Senator Evans.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I am happy to defer to you, Mr President. I am reminded of the exchange I heard recently in Parliament House when someone said, `Why do so many people take an instant dislike to Senator Bishop?' to which the answer was, `It saves time'. The short answer to her question is that the Secretary of the Department has reported to me on this matter, as one would expect to be the case.