Canberra, AAP – Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s judgment is under fire following the loss of two ministers in one day and accusations he tried to bury the bad news.
Cities Minister Jamie Briggs quit the ministry on Tuesday over an ‘error of professional judgment’ involving a female public servant at a Hong Kong bar, while embattled frontbencher Mal Brough finally succumbed to mounting pressure over his involvement in the James Ashby affair.
Mr Briggs said he fell short of the standards required of a minister in the incident which offended the woman on a late night during an official visit to Hong Kong in November.
‘I’ve apologised directly to her but after careful reflection about the concerns she raised and the fact that I was at a bar late at night while on an overseas visit, I have concluded this behaviour has not met the particularly high standards for ministers,’ he said.
Mr Brough will stand aside as special minister of state and defence materiel minister pending police inquiries into the Ashby saga.
Mr Turnbull said he and Mr Brough had agreed he should step aside even though he stood by his scandal-plagued minister through weeks of Labor demands for his resignation in November.
Acting Labor leader Tanya Plibersek accused the prime minister of preparing for an early election by trying to ‘take out the trash’ during a time of year when most Australians weren’t paying attention.
Mr Turnbull must’ve known about Mr Briggs’ incident weeks ago, she said.
‘He saved up all the bad news for a day between Christmas and New Year when he thought no one was listening,’ she said in Sydney.
Mr Turnbull’s decision to appoint Mr Brough to the ministry despite ‘red lights flashing’ about his involvement in the Ashby affair was an indictment on the prime minister’s ‘appalling’ judgment, she said.
‘Why was Malcolm Turnbull standing by Mal Brough just a month ago?’
Mr Brough is facing a police investigation into whether he asked Mr Ashby, a former staffer of Peter Slipper, to copy the former Speaker’s diary.
He’s denied any wrongdoing, despite telling the Nine Network last year he asked Mr Ashby to procure copies of the diary.
In a letter to the prime minister dated December 29, Mr Brough said he looked forward to resuming his ministerial responsibilities once the investigation was complete.
The prime minister said he’d also accepted Mr Briggs’ resignation, adding he’d been disappointed by his conduct.
Mr Briggs said the public servant was offended by his behaviour and later made a complaint but he stopped short of revealing what took place when he fronted reporters in Adelaide, insisting ‘nothing illegal has been alleged or in fact did occur’.
It’s been reported he told the woman she had piercing eyes, put his arm around her and gave her a kiss on the cheek as she left the bar.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann will act as special minister of state, Defence Minister Marise Payne will act as minister for defence materiel and science and Environment Minister Greg Hunt will act as cities minister.
It’s understood a ministerial reshuffle would likely be delayed until early next year, amid speculation Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss will announce his retirement before parliament resumes in February.