Harassment Scandal Pushes Australian Minister to the Backbench
Image Credit: Flickr/cebitaus

Harassment Scandal Pushes Australian Minister to the Backbench

 
 

Jamie Briggs, an Australian politician from the Liberal Party, resigned from his post as federal minister for cities and the built environment in late December. The resignation came a month after a female public servant complained about his behavior during a night out in Hong Kong in late November. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been the target of criticism for his delay in shuffling Briggs to the backbench and the strategic timing of the resignation (and the almost simultaneous resignation that of Mal Brough, another scandal-touched minister) in the week between Christmas and New Years.

Briggs’ statement said that after concluding business, he and his chief of staff went to dinner with several other officials.

At the conclusion of the dinner (which I paid for personally) we went to a popular and as it transpired very crowded bar for drinks during which we interacted between the three of us and with others in what I believed, at the time, was an informal manner. At the conclusion of the evening, the public servant left to return home and my Chief of Staff and I returned to our hotel together.

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Tabloids in Briggs’ home city of Adelaide said the woman’s complaints involved “a kiss, a hug and a comment about her eyes.” But Turnbull, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported, “appeared to dismiss the idea that the incident could be interpreted as playful flirtation.” Later details claimed Briggs had complimented the woman on her “piercing eyes,” put his arm around her and kissed her either on the cheek or the neck.

The South China Morning Post referred to the Hong Kong party district where the scandal unfolded this this: “Lan Kwai Fong has been the undoing of a barrow-load of country boys in the past – and no one in Hong Kong would have been shocked to find out that a rural Australian government minister went the same way.”

Turnbull called the issue a “serious matter” on December 29 while at the same time defending the delay between the incident and Briggs’ resignation which the opposition has criticized as a “grotesque form of media management.”

The Guardian reported on December 28 that Briggs said would not reveal the name of the woman “to protect her privacy and at her request.” But a few days later, he confirmed that pictures of the woman that had surfaced in the press had been taken by him and sent to others “prior to the complaint and following.” Turnbull said it was “not the right thing to do clearly,” but dismissed calls from the opposition Labor party to investigate how the pictures were leaked.

This incident in particular raises a number of questions about respect for women in Australia and appropriate behavior for politicians.

Deputy leader of the Liberal National party, Barnaby Joyce, aired worries that Australia would become “sterile.” Per the Guardian, Joyce said “…I like that Australia is to the point. One of the great things about Australian politics is our informality and directness and I’d hate to lose that, even if there can be faux pas.”

What Joyce characterizes as “sterile” others might call “respectful.”

Sharman Stone, a Liberal backbencher, told ABC that “The interesting activities of the past number of weeks demonstrate that some of our male colleagues still don’t get it in terms of treating all women with respect.”

One of the “activities” Stone was likely referring to was the text sent accidentally by Peter Dutton, a Liberal politician and minister of immigration, to Samantha Maiden, the national political editor for News Corp’s Sunday papers in which he referred to her as a “mad f—ing witch.”

The text had been sparked by Maiden’s Sunday column harshly critical of the Briggs incident and had been intended for Briggs.

Dutton apologized and Maiden said to ABC radio: “I would be lying if I was trying to manufacture outrage … I’m not offended by it.” She said “I do think there are more substantial issues involved here, including the disclosure of these photographs and text messages.”

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