On the first “business” day after Christmas, Mr Turnbull announced the resignation of Jamie Briggs from the ministry following an inquiry into a complaint of inappropriate behaviour made against the junior minister by a female government employee.
This is the second case in less than six months of Mr Briggs being pinged for bad behaviour apparently under the influence of alcohol.
On the first occasion he hurt only himself, reportedly attempting to crash-tackle Tony Abbott at the former PM’s booze-soaked impromptu farewell party, and ending up with a torn ACL.
But the second occasion was much more damaging, not because Mr Briggs lost his job, but because he is alleged to have exhibited behaviour towards a woman that could amount to sexual harassment.
Given the power differential between the Minister and the public servant, Mr Briggs’ unwelcome behaviour was tantamount to a boss hitting on a junior staffer. Not only was it inappropriate – it was completely unacceptable.
No wonder the PM called in his Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash, when a sub-group of the Cabinet met to consider the outcomes of the inquiry following the woman’s complaint. The sub-group, which also included Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, rightfully concluded the Minister had to go.
This reportedly happened before Christmas. The time lapse between the decision and the announcement of Mr Brigg’s resignation has been explained as giving the MP time to break the news to his family.
It’s a shame government MPs haven’t shown similar compassion for the woman who lodged the complaint. Instead, we were treated to a conga line of apologists for Mr Briggs this week, who by defending the disgraced MP as “decent” and “a good man” effectively dismissed the complaint and delegitimised the woman who made it.
This is a very bad look for the Turnbull government, which is still struggling with a “woman problem” in the wake of Tony Abbott’s time at the helm.
An internal Liberal Party report leaked to the media last weekend stated the party’s paucity of women is translating into a loss of female voters, and that the barriers to women in the party include a perceived “boys’ club” culture and occasional chauvinistic behaviour from men.
PM Turnbull may have scored brownie points with female voters by appointing more women to Cabinet, but that kudos may entirely be negated by the sight of male government MPs rallying around Mr Briggs while seemingly being unable to admonish their colleague for his unacceptable behaviour towards a woman.
Brough takes one for the team, sort of
Almost immediately after the PM announced Mr Briggs’ resignation from the ministry, Mr Turnbull also advised that embattled Special Minister of State, Mal Brough, had stood aside until the outcomes of the Slipper-Ashby police investigation against him were known.
It’s hard to know whether the Briggs announcement was meant to distract us from the Brough one, or vice versa, but some wit in the Prime Minister’s office obviously thought it was wise to take the two stinking bags of trash out at the same time.
Unlike Mr Briggs’ unexpected resignation, Mr Brough’s sidelining was inevitable and only a matter of time. The PM can hardly afford to have Mr Brough on the front bench when Parliament resumes in February if the legality of his involvement in the affair remained unresolved.
We saw what you did there, on Medicare and Gonski
If there was any doubt the Turnbull government was using the summer break to sneak out unpopular decisions, this week’s announcements on Medicare and Gonski soon dispelled them.
Health and education are traditionally weak spots for the Coalition, because conservative governments tend to cut spending in these policy areas. They’re conversely positions of strength for Labor for the opposite reason.
So while it may have spun our cynicism dials to 10, it was unsurprising that Turnbull ministers announced this week that the government would review the Medicare status of some procedures, and ruled out funding the latter years of the Gonski program.
Labor will make sure once Parliament resumes that these “cuts” are drawn to the attention of any voters who zoned out over summer.
TURC defines the Coalition’s preferred battleground
While Labor will be keen to fight this election year on “social” policies such as health and education, the Coalition has another battlefield in mind. Tony Abbott established the Royal Commission into union corruption when he was elected in 2013 with the intention of using the outcomes to fight an election on industrial relations in 2016.
He also introduced legislation to curb union power knowing that Labor and the Greens would oppose it and thereby provide the additional option of going to an early double dissolution election if necessary.
The head of the royal commission delivered his final report by its due date this week, and its finding are unsurprisingly damning of the union movement. It documents the examples of dodgy practices, bullying tactics and – in some isolated cases – illegal behaviour that were provided in evidence to the inquiry.
Mr Abbott intended this evidence to tarnish the reputation of all unions, not just those that are guilty, so they could no longer campaign credibly on behalf of Labor in the upcoming election.
Even though the former PM is no longer dictating the government’s re-election strategy (although he’s trying), there is still a risk for Labor and the unions that voters will be swayed against them by the isolated instances of bad behaviour that the inquiry unearthed.
No amount of calling the royal commission a witch-hunt (which it was), or the commissioner a Coalition lackey, will erase that evidence – particularly the instances that lead to police action and charges being prosecuted.
But if voters see genuine action being taken by Labor and union leaders to clean up the movement’s act (as even Bob Hawke has recommended) their trust in unions will be retained – and not even an Abbott-like election campaign would be able to breach it.
Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. You can read more of her columns here