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Libs "some way off" addressing cultural problems, Birmingham told ex-staffer

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SA Liberal powerbroker Simon Birmingham told his former staff member Chelsey Potter in 2018 that a party-wide conversation about inappropriate behaviour towards women was likely “some way off” – after she complained of experiencing “appalling, absolutely revolting behaviour”, according to correspondence seen by InDaily.

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Potter yesterday revealed in an opinion piece published by InDaily that she sought to meet with her former boss in 2019, in the days before she went public with an allegation of historical sexual assault by a then-fellow Liberal staffer.

The alleged assault had occurred four years earlier.

Birmingham, the Morrison Government’s senate leader and Finance Minister, has confirmed he declined to meet with Potter at the time, despite being aware of her claims after his office was contacted by a Sydney Morning Herald journalist.

Instead, he directed her to information and counselling services Women’s Information Service and 1800RESPECT.

Potter says he had not made contact with her since until yesterday, when he invited her to participate in a parliament-wide cultural review he is overseeing, initiated in response to a separate rape allegation made last week by another former Government staffer, Brittany Higgins.

Several other women have since come forward with their own claims against Higgins’ alleged assailant, who is not linked to Potter’s allegation of assault.

Birmingham told InDaily yesterday that “at no other point has Ms Potter raised these claims with me or anyone else in my office, or sought to discuss them with me”.

However, it can be revealed Potter did inform the senator of consistent “appalling, absolutely revolting behaviour” she had suffered throughout her time working in the party ranks, across multiple offices.

InDaily has been provided a text message Potter sent to Birmingham on September 10, 2018 – in the midst of the fallout of then-Liberal MP Julia Banks’ decision not to recontest her marginal seat of Chisholm, citing the parliament’s “cultural and gender bias, bullying and intimidation” of women.

Banks later quit the Liberal party and ran unsuccessfully against Health Minister Greg Hunt in his seat of Flinders.

At the time, between exchanging pleasantries about holidays and passing on well-wishes to his family, Potter told Birmingham: “If you don’t mind me saying too, I’m glad the party might – attempt to – have a conversation about inappropriate behaviour towards women.”

She said she had “experienced some appalling, absolutely revolting behaviour” starting from when she was a volunteer at the age of 16 and spanning her time working as a staffer across various parliamentary offices, before she left in 2016.

Alluding to the support shown to Banks from other women MPs, Potter wrote: “It’s a very important conversation for a lot of us, so I hope it’s a genuine, long-term discussion and actual action – not simply getting back at the Right [faction], because it applies to some of our guys [in the moderate faction] too.”

“Anyway,” she concluded, “enough of me and my dangerous opinions of my own.”

According to correspondence seen by InDaily, Birmingham responded five days later: “Cheers mate… I think we are some way off having the conversations we really need to have, but maybe the crisis we appear to be getting deeper into will spur the action required.”

Approached for comment today, Birmingham told InDaily in a statement that “the September 2018 message exchange pre-dated Ms Potter publicly raising her claim of a 2015 sexual assault, which I only learned of after Ms Potter had shared it with a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald in 2019″.

“Eight days after that 2018 message exchange with Ms Potter, the new Prime Minister [Scott Morrison] moved to impose a new, formal complaints handling process on the Liberal Party to help address and prevent inappropriate behaviour,” Birmingham said.

“Recent disclosures of other terrible events have demonstrated a need for other improved practices involving parliamentary staff, which will be addressed by the independent, multi-party processes.

“I thank Ms Potter for her willingness to engage in that process.”

Birmingham’s role overseeing a cross-party review into workplace culture and complaints processes has been under scrutiny since Potter’s claims aired in InDaily.

Asked about the issue in Question Time yesterday, Birmingham reiterated that he “first became aware of Chelsey’s claims after [his] office was approached by a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald shortly before publication”.

He said Potter contacted him seeking a meeting four days before the article was published, and “I indicated I was aware of the conversations she was having with the media”, and directed her to the counselling services.

However, his office contacted her yesterday to schedule a telephone conversation later this week.

“I’ve indicated in relation to Chelsey and indeed others that through the process this parliament, I hope, will undertake that we can engage with them such that they can feel that that process helps to address the matters of concern they rightly have from their past experiences, and we can all have an improved understanding of how to prevent these issues and better respond to them in future,” he told parliament.

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