Federal Politics

Malcolm Turnbull looks at February reshuffle after 'taking out the trash' with ministerial exits

Three months after ending Tony Abbott's leadership with a promise to put the Coalition on a "new trajectory" of success, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has had his worst day in office, losing one minister following an incident on an overseas trip and another after weeks of pressure over the James Ashby affair.

In a day dubbed by Labor as Mr Turnbull's "taking out the trash" moment, Cities Minister Jamie Briggs quit on Tuesday, admitting to inappropriately dealing with an Australian public servant in a Hong Kong bar.

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Why Jamie Briggs was in Hong Kong

Only one thing is certain about the mystery night out that cost Jamie Briggs his portfolio, it wasn't what he was in Hong Kong to do. Courtesy ABC News 24.

A senior government source familiar with an investigation held into the young woman's complaint said Mr Briggs – who is married to a former Liberal staffer – had been intoxicated and "overly-affectionate" during the bar room incident.

Within minutes of Mr Briggs quitting, Mr Turnbull also announced Mal Brough would stand aside until the Australian Federal Police concludes its investigation into the Special Minister of State's involvement in the copying of the diaries of the former speaker, Peter Slipper.

Mal Brough and Jamie Briggs both stepped down on Tuesday.
Mal Brough and Jamie Briggs both stepped down on Tuesday. 

A cabinet source told Fairfax Media the government could not risk the Brough scandal dragging into election year 2016, with no sign of an end to the AFP investigation and an opposition itching to resume its attack when Parliament returns in February.

"Everyone thought it would be too much of a distraction," the source said.

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Acting Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said Mr Turnbull was hoping that by getting both announcements out the door during the holiday period voters might not notice the upheaval.

"He saved up all the bad news for between Christmas and New Year when he hoped no one is listening," she said.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Special Minister of State and Minister for Defence Materiel and Science Mal Brough, ...
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Special Minister of State and Minister for Defence Materiel and Science Mal Brough, who stepped aside on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann will pick up Mr Brough's portfolio of Special Minister of State, and Defence Minister Marise Payne will pick up his second portfolio, Defence Materiel and Science.

It is understood Mr Turnbull will hold open his job but the Prime Minister is expected to announce a reshuffle in early February which will largely hinge on the future of his deputy, Warren Truss.

The Turnbull cabinet, shortly after Malcolm Turnbull won the prime ministership.
The Turnbull cabinet, shortly after Malcolm Turnbull won the prime ministership. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Coalition colleagues expect the National Party leader to announce his retirement when Parliament resumes in February, a decision that would likely make way for the ascension of Barnaby Joyce.

After the disaster that was the failed defection of Ian Macfarlane, National Party members are again calling for greater representation in the ministry.

Jamie Briggs sports an injury the day after commiserating with Tony Abbott following the leadership spill.
Jamie Briggs sports an injury the day after commiserating with Tony Abbott following the leadership spill.  Photo: Andrew Meares

NSW Nationals senator John Williams even said Mr Briggs' departure would improve the quality of the ministry.

A Liberal, who did not wish to be named, said "the IQ quota has gone up and the talentless arrogance quota has gone down" with the exits of both Mr Briggs and Mr Brough.

Illustration: Matt Golding
Illustration: Matt Golding 

Victorian MP Alan Tudge has been touted as a potential replacement in the Cities and Built Environment portfolio, as has fellow parliamentary secretary and key Turnbull numbers man Peter Hendy from NSW.

It was reported in Adelaide, in his home state of South Australia, that Mr Briggs had complimented the female public servant on her "piercing eyes", put his arm around her and kissed her on the cheek during the Hong Kong incident in late November. Channel Nine political editor Laurie Oakes said the alleged kiss had been on the neck.

Illustration: Simon Letch
Illustration: Simon Letch 

The details of the woman's complaint have not been made public.

Mr Briggs confirmed little in a carefully-worded statement.

He said he invited the woman out for drinks to a "popular, and as it transpired, very crowded bar," with his chief of staff, Stuart Eaton.

Mr Briggs said their interactions at the bar were informal but, in the days after, the public servant made a complaint about his behaviour towards her.

"At no point was it my intention to act inappropriately and I'm obliged to note for the record that nothing illegal has been alleged," he said.

A senior Liberal source said: "You can't get away with that, especially in these times of mutual respect. But he has 'fessed up and now he has to deal with his wife and family."

It is understood Mr Briggs, who is married to former prime minister John Howard staffer Estee Fiebiger Briggs, had received a warning over his partying ways after injuring his leg during the booze-soaked farewell party for Tony Abbott in the prime ministerial suite on the night Mr Turnbull seized the leadership.

But a number of colleagues, including Senator Cormann and Government Whip Ewen Jones, believe Mr Briggs, who has vowed to stay on as the member for Mayo in South Australia, would return to the ministry in future.

Mr Turnbull is likely to come under more pressure over Mr Brough who has been stood aside rather than sacked. Labor has accused the Prime Minister of "atrocious judgment" in appointing him a minister while still mired in the Ashby affair.

Controversy over the diaries flared again in November when Mr Brough was asked to hand over documents relating to the disclosure of Mr Slipper's diary.

- with Latika Bourke and Matthew Knott