Joint with Chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, Senator Louise Pratt, and Julian Hill MP.


SUBJECTS: Senate Inquiry into dowry abuse; Bullying in the Liberal Party; Peter Dutton au pair affair.

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: I’m here today with Senator Louise Pratt who is chairing a very important Senate inquiry into the practice or prevalence of dowry abuse in Australia. And also my House of Representatives colleague from Melbourne, Julian Hill, who has been quite instrumental in ensuring that this inquiry is established. This morning we had an enlightening and most productive discussion with a number of members of our very diverse communities who were impacted by dowry and dowry abuse.

One of the biggest issues is actually defining what dowry is. It’s an issue that covers financial, cultural, religious norms. It’s one in which there is a common theme. The common theme is: Someone is making money at the expense of other people which can result, not only in family violence, but in other forms of violence that aren’t only physical. There is emotional violence; there are people who have been left destitute overseas. And this kind of practice, the fact that it is occurring in Australia is of great concern. We also do not have a uniform approach to, not only understanding what the issue is, but also in law reform in order to address it.

So this Senate inquiry is vitally important. It is one in which we are hopeful we are going to have some very meaningful legislative change and ones that ultimately benefit Australians and ultimately results in alleviating the kinds of behaviours we’ve seen. I’ll hand over to Louise to say a few words.

SENATOR LOUISE PRATT, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR UNIVERSITIES AND EQUALITY & CHAIR OF LEGAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS REFERENCES COMMITTEE: Thank you very much. As Chair of this committee it’s a privileged to hear the stories that have come from the Australian community and those who that are affected by dowry abuse. I’d really like to encourage the community to make submissions to this inquiry through the Senate. It’s very clear from the evidence that’s been given to us so far that our laws are ill-equipped in dealing with this issue and that we will need to look at law reform in order to address this. But equally important as is very clear is support for the community organisations that reach out and support the victims of this abuse here in Australia. So I’d like to encourage communities right around Australia who are affected by dowry abuse to please put their submissions in to the committee inquiry through the Senate and to get involved. Thank you.

JULIAN HILL: We’ve heard this morning and through the submissions already made that the issue of dowry and dowry abuse is not confined to any one culture, it’s not confined to any one religion and it affects men and women in negative ways, be that through payments and extortion for further payments or false complaints in the case of some of the Indian cases we have heard about. But overwhelmingly the negative evidence we’ve heard is that dowry is an issue that is particularly affecting women in Australia from many different backgrounds.

Now I’m going to say something which I think is pretty obvious to everyone here, and the women of Australia don’t really need a bloke to say it but there are some people in Australia that need to be reminded: Women are not property. You cannot buy a woman, you cannot buy control over a woman through payment or receipt of dowry and we’ve seen evidence, disturbing evidence, that dowry-related abuse is a direct cause of family violence, of murders, of suicides and the most horrific sexual and emotional abuse.

And so Victoria, the State that I come from, I think has led the way in passing legislation to make clear that dowry abuse is a form of economic family violence - no equivocation - and we’ve also heard that there are issues that we need to look at through the Senate inquiry and that Labor will take up if we form the government in relation to the migration system; obligations on sponsors and indeed the going price. I have had anonymous emails that suggested it’s at least $100,000 to sell Australian citizenship in effect for what constitutes a sham marriage which is then abandoned. These are serious issues in our community and I congratulate Louise for her leadership in forming the Senate inquiry so we can figure out together with the community what the best solutions are.

ROWLAND: We’re happy to take some questions, firstly, on dowry abuse.

JOURNALIST: What are the key things please, you mentioned that submissions closed, but yet people could submit, yes?

PRATT: Yes, as Chair of the committee I am able to accept late submissions and will be inquiring frankly to reopen them, at least for a little while, so that it’s very clear that we are still welcoming submissions. We’re due to report next year which certainly gives time for further inquiries – for example we have a hearing coming up in Victoria on the 21st of September and I would look forward to coming back to NSW to hold a formal Senate hearing sometime this year as well.

JOURNALIST: Do you feel there’s a lack of communication with the sub-continent communities as even this inquiry we only find out after submissions have closed. Are we, as government agencies, are we doing enough or are we just sort of scratching the surface and thinking our job is done?

PRATT: Not at all, it’s essentially dependent on our relationships with each other as members of Parliament and our connections with your communities. There are no government agencies involved here. This is about our role as Parliamentarians speaking directly with communities, which is why I’m seeking to reopen the submission process.

HILL: Can I just add on that, I think it’s fair to say we’ve had more prominence of this issue in Victoria because of the work of Dr Manjula O’Connor – a leading campaigner nationally, who drove the work in the Victorian Royal Commission but to congratulate Michelle on her leadership in picking this issue up and amplifying it amongst the New South Wales community. That’s been an enormously important gesture – the roundtable today which will lead to further submissions.  

PRATT: And that’s how we make these connections, it’s very much through your local representatives.

JOURNALIST: So your initiative is led by the Labor Party – are the other parties involved in this?

PRATT: The committee has the membership of one Greens member, three Labor and two Liberal Party members and we would look forward to all of those Members of Parliament participating in the hearings.

JOURNALIST: No one from minor parties, like One Nation or…?

PRATT: Not at this stage, but all Senators are welcome to participate in these inquiries and in fact I would expect that there would actually be an interest from someone like Derryn Hinch and also other members of the crossbench. If you have relationships with members who are in the Senate then please get in touch with them and let them know about this inquiry also.

HILL: The Attorney-General of the Government, Christian Porter, has said that he believes the current laws are adequate. I would hope that through the inquiry and even the submissions made so far he would have the decency to change that view. Because if the current laws are so adequate then why is this still happening and why are we getting these horrific reports of links to family violence and the inability of your community organisations to respond.

JOURNALIST: Ms Rowland can I ask on bullying. Do you think there is a culture of bullying in the Liberal Party?

ROWLAND: I think the evidence demonstrates that that’s the case. I think the evidence also demonstrates that the Liberal Party has a woman problem. In Labor we are nearing 50 per cent of representation of women in our Federal Parliament.  In the Liberal Party it’s hovering around 20 per cent. I think what is most disturbing here is we have had women in the Liberal Party either saying they are not going to recontest the election, or calling out in Parliament already saying that they have been subject to intimidation during the leadership crisis that they had, but also we have a Senator threatening to name those people in the Senate. And what is going on?  We haven’t had an adequate either response or a roadmap for how this Prime Minister is going to deal with it. In fact what it looks like right now is that Scott Morrison is running a protection racket for bullies within the Liberal Party.

JOURNALIST: Are you aware of any instances on your side of politics where you’ve seen male Senators bully or intimidate female Labor Senators?

ROWLAND: I have not, and my Senate colleague here?

PRATT: No I certainly have not either.  You know, I have been, I was first elected to the Senate back in 2007.  We have very robust and dynamic relationships, but bullying has never ever underpinned any of those dynamics.

JOURNALIST: Have you experienced intimidation or bullying within Parliament from the other side?

PRATT: I think any of you who have seen me and Senator MacDonald inside Senate committees would know we have pretty robust dynamics there too. But what I am most concerned about is the kind of bullying that is being seen here to take place behind the scenes, that limits women’s participation and their careers within the Parliament - certainly within the Liberal Party.

JOURNALIST: Is it difficult to reconcile those comments though with what we’ve seen with the Member for Lindsay?

ROWLAND: I think what we saw there is the Labor Party being very upfront in needing to confront this, in establishing an independent inquiry and, let’s face it, that became publicly known and unfortunately I think it inhibited some of the good work, or indeed the perception of some of the good work, that was being done by John Whelan in that instance. But make no mistake, this was a rapid response. This was the Labor Party saying ‘look we realise that there’s a problem and we are going to address it, we are going to have an inquiry into this’, and that was done by the Labor Party itself.

Now I see the Liberal Party organisation has had people up-front denying that there’s a problem, saying that this is all part of the ordinary course of business and denying that it’s happening. How can that be the case? How can that possibly be the case when Members of Parliament, who are women from their own side, are saying that it is occurring? So I think they are quite different examples.

JOURNALIST: Is it your belief that the buck stops with the Prime Minister?

ROWLAND: Absolutely, just as the buck stopped with Paul Keating when in the 1990s he made it very clear that the culture in the Labor Party needed to adapt to ensure that women were represented in our Parliaments just as they are represented in the population. And it was from that point on that the culture of the Labor Party changed for the better. And the result that we see now is not only borne out by the numbers of women in our Parliament but also the fact we do not have this problem of bullying within the Labor Party. This problem exists within the Liberal party and the problem is there because Scott Morrison is running a protection racket for those bullies.

JOURNALIST: Senator Pratt as Chair of the Senate References Committee into au pair visas, what have you received into evidence from the Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg?

PRATT: We’ve received a letter but it hasn’t yet been released under Parliamentary Privilege so I can’t make comment on the contents of that letter, but what I can say is that we have received evidence from a number of sources under privilege which certainly clarifies the fact that Minister Dutton has given one version of events and other people certainly put a different position to him.

JOURNALIST: Will the committee call Mr Quaedvlieg to give verbal testimony?

PRATT: The committee is due to report next Tuesday so that frankly means that it is up to the Senate to work out if we need more time to further our enquiries.

JOURNALIST: So Mr Quaedvlieg has suggested he was contacted my Minister Dutton’s chief of staff who said he was acting on behalf of the Minister. What do you understand the significance of that is?

PRATT: Well, I can’t over step it in terms of I can’t speak too much about those facts outside of Parliamentary environment, but at face value that makes it clear that when the Minister says she was asked by the department to take action that in fact the onus was the other way around. This is very much a case of Ministerial intervention taking place upon the request of someone outside who has sought to influence him directly. In the meantime what yesterday’s evidence also showed very clearly is that there are thousands of cases waiting for Ministerial intervention that never receive his attention.

JOURNALIST: So do you think that it was appropriate for Minister Dutton’s chief of staff to call the incoming ABF Commissioner when the department has said that it has a specialist intervention section that deals with these matters?

PRATT: Most people when they request Ministerial Intervention, unless there’s this kind of special influence taking place, they’re given an email address through which to submit their request. There are people who spend days and days, months and months, and years in detention who are waiting for Ministerial Intervention. Here we have the highlighted case of a woman who was in detention for just five hours who based on the advice of the department was to be deported back to her place of origin. It was no risk to her for that to be the case and we had Ministerial Intervention take place within some five hours, which is a pretty extraordinary set of circumstances.

JOURNALIST: Senator, are you aware of any other similar circumstances or can you put this into context with former Immigration Ministers – Chris Bowen, Scott Morrison?

PRATT: I am certainly familiar with the work of Senator Evans when he was our Immigration Minister and he certainly said that he was uncomfortable with playing God in the circumstances of Ministerial Intervention.

JOURNALIST: But did he do it?

PRATT: Well, of course he was obliged to, under the Act, look out for humanitarian circumstances where Ministerial intervention is certainly justified.

JOURNALIST: All these claims about sexism in the Australian Parliament over the last couple of weeks. We had this before with Julia Gillard. Is there something particularly rotten or wrong in Australian political culture? And what’s the answer? Is it quota systems or is there more work required?

PRATT: I’m certainly a supporter of quota systems because I am in the Labor Party and I have seen the progress we have made under quota systems here, but that is not something that I could, frankly, dictate to other parties and Parliamentarians, but you can certainly see women agitating within the coalition that they should be looking towards quota systems within their own party. Why do we have this situation? Well frankly, the Australian Parliament is a reflection of the Australian community. There is sexism, bullying and discrimination that exists in many facets of our society and it’s a cultural problem that we should all be doing something to address and that should very much be the case coming from the Prime Minster of Australia. He should take responsibility for stamping out sexism, bullying and discrimination.

ROWLAND: I’ve also seen comments from Liberal Party members saying that they need more women in safe seats. Well, I ask you to look at the safe seats just here in New South Wales, for example, and try to count how many women from the Liberal Party are in those safe seats. We know that when, for example, Bronwyn Bishop didn’t recontest she was replaced by a man. We’ve had opportunities at several by-elections to put up women, especially at the 2016 election from the Liberal Party and again we have men taking those spots. I am not one to dictate terms to the Liberal Party but if you want my point of view, it comes down to recognising you need to have more women in those positions, you need to have more women who are willing to put up their hand to contest seats and, let’s face it, not every seat is a safe one. I come from a part of North West Sydney where it’s very much on the margins in terms of where it might swing, election to election, but I would think that if a political party wants to succeed it should seek to make itself representative of the Australian community.

Again, as I have seen Liberal Party MPs call out and say ‘look, this kind of behaviour that is going on would not be tolerated in the private sector’ – it certainly would not. I came from a private sector background. This is the kind of behaviour that would have been dealt with immediately. There would have been no truck with it from the get-go. It’s now nearly two weeks since the Liberals’ latest leadership crisis and I don’t think the Australian public is any clearer about what their strategy is to deal with it and what sort of decisions are going to come top-down from Prime Minister Scott Morrison because in the absence of that leadership we will actually have that situation, I think, worsening and we will have more women ready to put their names to call out this type of behaviour that has been going on.