Malcolm Turnbull under pressure as kissing scandal worsens

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (centre) speaking at a press conference with Attorney-General George Brandis (left) and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash on Dec 30, 2015.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (centre) speaking at a press conference with Attorney-General George Brandis (left) and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash on Dec 30, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

Leaked photo of episode involving ex-minister compounded by colleague's offensive SMS

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull faces a deepening political scandal over an incident in which a government minister allegedly kissed a female diplomat in a Hong Kong  bar. 

Mr Jamie Briggs, who is married with three children, was forced to resign as Minister for Cities last week after the young woman complained about his behaviour. He reportedly kissed her on the neck or cheek and told her she had "piercing" eyes.

Mr Briggs, 38, said his behaviour was not illegal but admitted the late-night drinking session was an "error of professional judgment".

But the scandal has only worsened in recent days. 

First, it emerged over the weekend that Mr Briggs had sent a photo from the night to colleagues. 

The resignations of Mr Briggs and another minister last week, coupled with the text message, have presented a political headache for Mr Turnbull. He will now have to reshuffle his Cabinet to replace the ministers - a move that can often result in political enemies.

The saga took a further turn when the photo appeared in weekend newspapers. This prompted Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to describe a journalist in a text message as a "mad f-ing witch". Unfortunately for Mr Dutton, he accidentally sent the text message to the journalist herself rather than to Mr Briggs. 

He later apologised to the journalist, Ms Samantha Maiden.

"Sam and I have exchanged some robust language over the years, so we had a laugh after this and I apologised to her straightaway which she took in good faith," he said in a statement. 

Ms Maiden said yesterday she was not offended and did not regard the message as sexist. She added she did not believe Mr Dutton should be forced to resign.

"I sent him a text immediately saying 'you know mate, you've sent that mad witch text to the mad witch' and he was more than happy to apologise right away," she told Channel Nine.

The series of scandals has dominated headlines and forced Mr Turnbull, as one commentator said, to "start 2016 with a 2015 hangover". 

Mr Turnbull, who ousted Mr Tony Abbott in September last year, is well ahead in the opinion polls but faces a general election later this year.

He was forced to intervene yesterday, expressing anger about the leak and subsequent publication of the photo of the diplomat. He said the language in Mr Dutton's text message was clearly inappropriate.

"Publishing the identity of a complainant in a case like this not only infringes their privacy, it serves actively to discourage other women who are concerned about the conduct of a superior from raising a complaint in the future," he told Fairfax Media.

The resignations of Mr Briggs and another minister last week, coupled with the text message, have presented a political headache for Mr Turnbull. He will now have to reshuffle his Cabinet to replace the ministers - a move that can often result in political enemies.

The opposition described the text message as a test of Mr Turnbull's leadership, saying most Australians "don't want women spoken about in this way".

Acting Labor leader Penny Wong called Mr Dutton's behaviour boorish and "unbecoming of anyone, let alone a senior Cabinet minister".

"This is a test of Malcolm Turn- bull's leadership and he should come out and explain Peter Dutton's position, why the behaviour is acceptable or, if it's not, what is being done about it and, most importantly, how it is consistent with the ministerial standards that Mr Turnbull professes to endorse," she said.

Australian feminist and sociologist Eva Cox said Mr Dutton's text message was sexist and reflected poor political judgment. 

"It is a signal that Peter Dutton himself is not very good at judging what he should and should not say," she told ABC News. "It is something you expect of little boys in the playground, not a senior minister who is supposed to have good manners."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2016, with the headline 'Turnbull under pressure as kissing scandal worsens'. Print Edition | Subscribe