5 January 2016




SARAH DINGLE: Malcolm Turnbull has begun the New Year with a political headache. What started with Jamie Briggs’ night out in Hong Kong has spread thanks to a misdirected text message from Minister Peter Dutton and a leaked photograph of the woman behind the complaints in The Australian newspaper and it’s only five days into the New Year. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull issued a statement last night asking all parties to respect the public servant’s privacy, saying the rights of people in the workplace need to be respected. Senator Penny Wong is the Acting Opposition Leader and she joins me now. Senator, welcome.


DINGLE: Senator, do you think there needs to be an investigation into who keeps leaking information and that photo of the female public servant?

WONG: What there needs to be is transparency from the Prime Minister. Mr Turnbull issued a statement late yesterday, some days after these photos were published after being distributed by his former Minister. He’s got another Minister who thinks it’s appropriate to describe a female journalist as a “mad expletive witch”. He’s refused thus far to front up and answer questions about his Minister’s conduct and I think it is a disappointing display of weakness by a Prime Minister who I know has always consistently advocated for women to be treated appropriately, and I think that is what makes it so disappointing that he’s demonstrated such weakness on this issue.

DINGLE: Well on that, Fairfax papers are reporting this morning the Prime Minister himself rang a senior News Corp executive and asked him not to publish that photo of the female public servant. That’s a pretty commendable level of concern, isn’t it, a phone call from the Prime Minister saying do not do this?

WONG: I’d make a couple of points. That’s all very well, but isn’t the most important issue this – who provided the photo to the media outlet? Mr Briggs has conceded that he sent this photograph to his colleagues. He denies providing it to The Australian, so one of his colleagues must have. Now I think the more important question for Mr Turnbull is what action is he taking as the leader of the party and the Prime Minister to find out who received this photo and who provided it to the media. If he is concerned, and he should be – he’s right to be concerned about this complainant’s privacy being compromised in this way by the distribution of a photograph – if he is concerned about that he should be undertaking the appropriate investigation and taking appropriate action against whichever Coalition MP or Senator provided that photograph to the media.

DINGLE: Is this the last straw for Jamie Briggs? Does he deserve to remain in Parliament?

WONG: I thought it was interesting there’s been already commentary in the media about gossip in the Liberal Party suggesting that Mr Briggs might have a tough time retaining his seat and questioning that. I think it would be an important question for Malcolm Turnbull to answer whether or not Mr Briggs will remain the candidate for Mayo at the next election and does he retain the Prime Minister’s confidence as the Liberal MP for that seat. These are some of the questions Malcolm Turnbull is simply refusing to answer and I think it’s very disappointing that we’ve got two Ministers gone, we’ve got another Minister who is engaged in unacceptable behaviour and we still have silence from the Prime Minister, other than after a day of, frankly, media and public pressure, a carefully worded statement released and the selective backgrounding of one media outlet. I don’t think that’s the sort of leadership and transparency people would expect from Mr Turnbull.

DINGLE: The Prime Minster has said that Peter Dutton’s language was clearly inappropriate and he’s acknowledged Peter Dutton’s apology. What more can he do, what do you say exactly?

WONG: Hang on, you know that because that’s what one journalist has been backgrounded. I think on this sort of behaviour from his ministers, Malcolm Turnbull should front the media and answer your questions and answer the questions of journalists. He should explain to Australians, if he thinks that conduct is unacceptable, why it is not a breach, in his view, of the ministerial standards, or if it is a breach, why he thinks that an apology is sufficient. I do think that that is the minimum that the Prime Minister should be asked. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable proposition to say, if you’ve got a Minister doing these things and you’ve accepted that he’s going to continue in the ministry, for you to explain to Australians what you think about the behaviour, whether it was a breach of the standards and why you’ve accepted the apology as sufficient. I think that is a very reasonable proposition.

DINGLE: Peter Dutton’s “mad witch” text to journalist Samantha Maiden was an accident though, it was meant to be a private communication. Plenty of us have said things in private in support of friends which we wouldn’t necessarily want made public. So an apology and an acknowledgement of that apology, isn’t that enough?

WONG: It’s true, people say all sorts of things in private and I think we should have a legitimate discussion about whether that’s an acceptable thing to say anywhere. I don’t think it is, I don’t think calling women witches is an acceptable thing anywhere.

DINGLE: Are you saying that text was sexist?

WONG: I’m saying that calling a woman a witch, I think we all understand what that means.

DINGLE: What does it mean?

WONG: Come on, if someone called you a witch, how would you feel?

DINGLE: How would you feel? Would you be offended if someone called you a witch?

WONG: Yes, I think I would, I think most women would be and I think more importantly, not everybody, and I accept politics is a pretty robust environment and different people respond differently – but I think in most workplaces we would say it’s unacceptable. I think most of us would say to our children, if they used that phrase, a girl, that that was unacceptable.

DINGLE: Because it’s sexist?

WONG: Why is it acceptable – you certainly don’t call men witches, do you – but why is it acceptable for a senior Cabinet Minister to use that as the way in which he offers support to his mate who’s had to resign because of inappropriate behaviour to a woman? This is – one wonders how the conversation around the Cabinet table goes, if this is how the private discussions between frontbenchers in the Liberal Party go.

DINGLE: Some of your own colleagues are urging Labor not to go hard on the Jamie Briggs incident. In the Daily Telegraph we see NSW State Labor organiser David Latham saying ALP figures criticising Jamie Briggs should also be prepared to criticise the ALP itself, because of course his partner took out an AVO against NSW Labor Party boss Jamie Clements last year. Should people in glasshouses throw stones?

WONG: I think inappropriate behaviour should be dealt with wherever it occurs and obviously we all deal with different types of behaviour in different parts of our lives and we have to make judgements about how we handle it. I think every woman in every workplace knows that you have to think about how you respond to inappropriate behaviour, but certainly the approach that I think is the one we all should take is to call out inappropriate behaviour wherever we see it. Now, in terms of the culture of parties, parties always, like any organisation, have to continue to work on ensuring the culture is reasonable, ensuring the culture is fair, ensuring the culture is inclusive. And I think Labor has done a lot of work on that and that’s reflected in the number of women we have in Parliament and in senior positions.

DINGLE: I do want to ask you about Mal Brough as well. On Mal Brough standing aside, what will Labor’s position-

WONG: -There’s so many ministers to ask about, an interesting start to the year.

DINGLE: We’ll come to minister number three. What will Labor’s position be if the police investigation clears Mr Brough?

WONG: Let’s start with what’s happened in terms of Mr Brough stepping aside. What is extraordinary about that is it was very clear that Mr Brough, I think, misled the Parliament. And certainly his responses to questions in the Parliament were completely at odds to his public statements that he had made earlier in a television interview. So he’s either lying to the television journalist, or he’s lying to the Parliament. Malcolm Turnbull stood by him then, yet when it was politically convenient on the day that the Government both walked away from the Gonski funding of schools and also Mr Briggs announced his resignation, Mr Brough steps aside. And one of the questions, I think, for Mr Turnbull is, what changed? What happened between the week in which you stood by him in the Parliament, where I think most people would regard Mr Brough’s answers in the Parliament as well short of the standards we expect of ministers, what happened between that and the day in which he stepped aside? I think Mr Brough’s conduct, leaving aside the police investigation, the police ought be able to conduct that appropriately, I think his public comments out of his own mouth really mean that he should not be continuing as a minister.

DINGLE: So you would like to see him stay on the backbench?

WONG: I do not see how you can say one thing to a major televised interview and say diametrically the opposite thing in the Federal Parliament and retain the confidence of the Parliament.

DINGLE: Senator Penny Wong, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us.

WONG: Good to speak with you.