The political heat is being turned up on embattled defence minister Linda Reynolds, with Labor saying she should have quit or been fired, and claiming her portfolio is in “disarray” as she extends her medical absence.
“Australia needs a Defence Minister, a critical role, who is competent and who is able to perform,” opposition leader Anthony Albanese said.
“Australia needs a Defence Minister and [Senator Reynolds’] position is untenable.”
But acting defence minister, Marise Payne, said such attacks were “unreasonable” and called for sympathy for the unwell Senator Reynolds.
Senator Reynolds announced an extension to her doctor-ordered medical leave over the weekend. She was due to return to work on Monday, after taking several weeks off on the advice of her cardiologist due to a previously diagnosed condition, but that absence will now continue until April 2.
Multiple media outlets have reported that, privately, some of Senator Reynolds’ Coalition colleagues have anonymously raised doubts over her likelihood to return as defence minister, and her ability to do the job.
Reynolds job ‘untenable’: Albanese
Labor’s shadow defence minister Brendan O’Connor claimed her medical leave had left the portfolio in “disarray”, with crucial projects such as Australia’s $89 billion submarine construction scheme potentially in jeopardy.
“Australia is facing rapidly evolving strategic circumstances and is struggling with complex projects like the $89 billion Future Submarines. We should have all hands on deck,” Mr O’Connor said.
The ABC reported on Monday that assistant defence minister, Andrew Hastie, has not received a charter letter from Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlining his duties and responsibilities.
This, the ABC reported, means Mr Hastie “will only be able to offer limited support” in Senator Reynolds’ absence.
The New Daily has contacted Mr Hastie’s office for comment.
“The Defence portfolio is already in disarray, with the Defence Minister to be absent through Estimates and upcoming sittings, and a junior Minister unable to do their job because the most basic first order of business has not been done,” Mr O’Connor claimed.
Labor’s shadow minister for home affairs, Kristina Keneally, claimed Senator Reynolds “should not and must not stay in this portfolio”.
“It’s broader than this issue of her health. It goes to her competence, it goes to her capacity, and it goes to her judgment,” Senator Keneally said.
They were comments later echoed by Mr Albanese, who said he believed Senator Reynolds should have lost her job weeks ago, in the wake of bombshell revelations of her handling of a report of rape from her then-staffer Brittany Higgins.
“The Prime Minister essentially said that her performance wasn’t appropriate on such a serious issue over two years, when a range of people knew about it, when there had been inquiries made through parliamentary authorities, when she’d had discussions with Ms Higgins about the reported sexual assault as well,” the Labor leader said.
“My view is on that day she should have resigned or been removed from her position.”
Ministers back Reynolds
Senator Payne, the foreign affairs minister and minister for women, is acting as defence minister in Senator Reynolds’ absence.
She hit back at Labor’s full-court press against the indisposed defence minister, in a press conference to launch a new government campaign against domestic violence, on International Women’s Day.
“If a senior executive at any business finds themselves dealing with a significant health challenge for a period of time, my experience and my understanding is that that individual is given the opportunity
on medical advice to deal with that issue,” Senator Payne said.
“I think that same respect and that same acknowledgement should be extended to Minister Reynolds in these circumstances… it is, in my view, entirely unreasonable to suggest that a person who is dealing with a health issue and is acting on the advice of medical professionals should be treated and spoken of in that way.”
Social services minister Anne Ruston said “Linda will be back at work as soon as she possibly can.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said he and the government sent best wishes to Senator Reynolds, and that he would “look forward to her returning to work.”
He described her “heart condition” as “challenging”.
Porter inquiry calls grow
Earlier, Senator Payne said she also did not back an independent inquiry into allegations of rape against attorney-general Christian Porter. He vehemently denies the claims, and is also on medical leave in the wake of the allegations.
“It would be unprecedented if we moved to establish an inquiry of this nature based on an allegation,” Senator Payne told AM radio.
“It would mean any person in Australia in any role in any job could be put in the position of ignoring the rule of law.”
When asked if Mr Morrison had consulted her, as minister for women, before ruling out such an inquiry, Senator Payne said he had spoken with “appropriate colleagues”.
“I’m not going to go into the details of my private conversations with the prime minister,” she said.
Mr Albanese is still pushing for an inquiry, claiming “the government will continue to face questions over the issue unless an independent investigation occurs.”
Senator Ruston, from South Australia, said she believed “everybody will be happy” if the coroner in that state opens a coronial inquiry into the death of the woman who accused Mr Porter of rape.