Federal Politics

IN DEPTH

The men who drilled holes in Turnbull's frontbench

Malcolm Turnbull was always going to be pondering the shape of his cabinet and outer ministry with his Christmas turkey.

It is accepted wisdom in Coalition ranks that election year 2016 will begin with the retirement announcement of his deputy, National Party Leader Warren Truss.

But due to the venality and stupidity of two Liberal Party ministers – Mal Brough and Jamie Briggs – there are now more holes in Turnbull's frontbench than he expected or wanted.

No Australian prime minister has lost two ministers so early in his term – even if John Howard lost more in his first three years.

Just three months after Turnbull begrudgingly named Jamie Briggs as Cities Minister – he originally offered the job to Bruce Billson as compensation for demoting him from the Small Business portfolio – the Adelaide MP resigned on Tuesday.

Briggs, 37 and a married father of three, admitted to behaving "inappropriately" towards a female public servant, a new recruit at Australia's Consulate-General, during a post-work drinking session in Hong Kong's notorious Lan Kwai Fong party district.

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Questions remain over the incident.

Peck, or something more?

People close to Briggs have briefed that the woman's complaint arose over a compliment about her "piercing eyes" and an uninvited peck on the cheek.

Others believe the behaviour was more inappropriate than that. Channel Nine's respected political editor, Laurie Oakes, reported the alleged kiss had been on the woman's neck.

Briggs confirmed little in a carefully-worded statement that appeared to have been written by a lawyer rather than an MP or a political staffer.

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.

"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.

Turnbull, who was handed the findings of an investigation into the incident on Christmas Eve, said it was a "serious matter".

Brough boil lanced

But the way in which Turnbull exploited the explosive announcement of Briggs' resignation to clear a separate – and potentially much more damaging – barnacle in the form of Mal Brough has also become a serious matter for Labor which has accused the PM of "grotesquely" exploiting the holiday dead zone for news to "take out the trash".

Minutes after Briggs stood up in Adelaide on Tuesday, Turnbull announced 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.

The Brough boil had grown since it was revealed Brough had been raided by the AFP, allowing the Opposition to exploit the discrepancies in the story Brough told Channel Nine's 60 Minutes program and his statements in Parliament in relation to the James Ashby – Slipper affair.

Senior Coalition figures agreed this week that the issue had to be lanced before Parliament returned this year (2016).

The MPs' exits turned what should have been a week focused on little else than the findings of the trade union royal commission into what looked like a shambles for Turnbull.

The final report by the royal commission was always going to be a springboard for the government to attack an unpopular Opposition Leader in Bill Shorten, even with Shorten escaping any adverse finding by Commissioner Dyson Heydon.

Abbott-urgers surface

But now the key players have been put in stocks and the slow processes of law have been put in motion, Turnbull has still been left with two men overboard.

It also gave two Tony Abbott-urgers, Eric Abetz and Nationals' Senator John Williams, a soapbox to call for the return of their man to the fold.

"I think if Tony Abbott were to go back in the cabinet that would be a good way to heal the wounds of the past," Williams said.

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

Turnbull will hold open Brough's job but the Prime Minister is expected to announce a reshuffle in early February which will largely hinge on the future of Truss.

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.

Brough a bigger loss

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

But of the two, hardman Brough is Turnbull's bigger loss.

The Queenslander was John Howard's Minister for Indigenous Affairs and became the public face of the Coalition's Northern Territory Emergency Response – "the Intervention" – aimed at combating alleged high rates of child neglect and abuse in Aboriginal communities.

Along with Howard, Brough lost his Queensland seat of Longman in the 2007 election.

Brough's return to Parliament began in November 2011 when Slipper quit the Liberal Party after being lured to the Speaker's seat in a ploy to lessen Julia Gillard's burden in running a minority government.

Investigation may allow Brough's return

In March 2012, James Ashby, a sometime Newcastle radio DJ who joined Slipper's staff the previous year, allegedly sent Brough images copied from the Speaker's official diary without authorisation.

Months after, Ashby launched legal action against Slipper, alleging sexual harassment. Slipper was also accused of misusing $954 of taxpayer-funded Cabcharges.

In July 2012 Brough was subpoenaed by the AFP in connection to legal action against Slipper. Lawyers for the Commonwealth told the court Ashby had colluded with another staffer to undermine the Speaker's reputation and advance his political opponents, including Brough.

It is his part in an apparent attempt to end Slipper's parliamentary career that the AFP is still investigating.

Unlike Briggs, Brough was a Turnbull supporter and one of the tight inner-sanctum that met to plot Tony Abbott's downfall on the night before the September party room spill.

On Tuesday, Brough stood aside.

Depending on the result of the AFP investigation, Brough may live another day.

Briggs's career killer

But Briggs has effectively killed his political career.

Inappropriate behaviour of MPs towards women was once routinely swept under the carpet, but in 2016 with Malcolm Turnbull increasing the number of women in his first Cabinet to underscore his government's new look from the Abbott era as a bastion of equal opportunity, the Adelaide MP's indiscretion was simply a Briggs too far.

In his first public statement on the scandal, more than 24 hours after the Liberal minister fell on his sword on Tuesday, 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."

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.

Call for transparency

Shadow special minister of state Gary Gray called on Turnbull to explain why Briggs waited a month to resign for his behaviour during the late-night drinking session in 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," Gray said.

He has written to the Public Service Commission and 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.

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 be 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.

Labor sharpens its knives

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," he said.

With the live possibility of a March election, Labor will be sharpening its knives over both Brough and Briggs.

If Turnbull thought he could leave them forgotten in 2015, he must be suffering the type of optimism that a beach holiday can induce.

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