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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has contradicted reports the Hong Kong bar incident that ended Jamie Briggs’ ministerial career was little more than a playful misunderstanding, describing the female diplomat’s complaint against Mr Briggs as a “serious matter”.
The former cities minister, who is married with three children, admitted to a lapse of professional judgment after behaving inappropriately towards a female employee of Australia’s Consulate-General in Hong Kong.
The woman, who is in her 20s, reported his behaviour to her superiors which sparked two independent investigations, the results of which were considered at cabinet level.
According to the first details of the incident, which emerged in newspaper reports in Mr Briggs’ home city of Adelaide, the incident involved a kiss on the woman’s cheek and remark about her “piercing eyes”.
But in his first public statement on the scandal, more than 24 hours after the Liberal minister fell on his sword, Mr Turnbull appeared to dismiss the idea that the incident could be interpreted as playful flirtation.
“This is a serious matter,” he said.
“It was considered very carefully with due process, consultation with senior colleagues, it was considered very, very carefully.
“Ministerial standards were breached. His conduct did not live up to the standard required of ministers and as a consequence, he reflected on that and made a decision to offer his resignation which I accepted and it was the appropriate course of action.”
Mr Turnbull remains under attack by the Opposition for what it calls “grotesque media management” in getting the Briggs’ resignation announcement and the sidelining of Special Minister of State Mal Brough out the door on the same day.
Shadow special minister of state Gary Gray called on Mr Turnbull to explain why Mr Briggs waited a month to resign for his behaviour during the late night drinking session in the bustling Lan Kwai Fong party district of Central, Hong Kong.
“This grotesque form of media management that would think it appropriate to drop this out in the week between Christmas and New Year in order to avoid questions is absolutely appalling,” Mr Gray told Fairfax Media.
Mr Gray said he would be writing to the Public Service Commission and Mr Briggs seeking a clearer timetable of when the complaint was lodged and action taken.
“We don’t want anything released that will identify the public servant but we should understand when the government knew of this event, why it was necessary to carry out several investigations and why it took so long,” he said.
Mr Gray said the matter should have been dealt with before Parliament rose for the year in December.
“This should have been dealt with in a transparent way in the parliament with a simple statement to conducted in an open way with an apology and resignation from the minister and most importantly with dignity and the protection for the Commonwealth public servant,” he said.
Mr Turnbull insisted there was no delay in dealing with the Jamie Briggs issue.
“The announcement about Mr Briggs was made on the first business day after Christmas and the decision was taken just before Christmas. So the process that we went through following the complaint about the incident becoming known was a proper due process, very much in accordance with the code of ministerial standards,” he said.
Mr Turnbull described Mr Brough’s sidelining as a “political decision” as the Australian Federal Police investigation into his involvement in the procuring of Peter Slipper’s diaries remains ongoing.
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