Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says he’s disappointed improving respect for women is not a priority of the coalition government as Prime Minster Scott Morrison apologised for airing claims of an internal harassment complaint at a media company.
Mr Morrison used a media conference in Canberra on Tuesday to acknowledge many Australian women did not believe their concerns had been heard, following weeks of protests and allegations about rape, harassment and abhorrent work culture in Parliament House.
Mr Morrison promised to “get our house in order” after it emerged male staffers – one of whom has been sacked – filmed themselves performing solo sex acts in the offices of female MPs.
He will soon announce an interim complaints mechanism for members, senators and staff, while awaiting the results of a review headed by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.
But Mr Turnbull noted a previous report into workplace sexual harassment by Ms Jenkins, which he commissioned as prime minister, had sat on the shelf since it was given to the government last year.
“What it tells you is that ensuring that women are respected in the workplace is not a priority of the government – it was a priority of my government which was why the report was undertaken and written,” Mr Turnbull told the ABC.
He said Mr Morrison’s media conference was “too much about him”.
“It really should have been about the women who have been the victims of discrimination and disrespect, sexual harassment, and indeed of rape.”
Mr Morrison’s claim at the media conference that News Corp’s HR department was investigating a complaint related to “harassment of a woman in a women’s toilet” was dismissed by the company on Tuesday.
The prime minister aired his complaint claim in response to a question by Sky News political editor Andrew Clennell about whether he had lost control of his ministerial staff, warning the senior journalist to “be careful”.
But News Corp chairman Michael Miller said no complaint had been received.
Mr Morrison issued a statement of regret late on Tuesday night regarding his comments at the media conference.
“In the course of today’s media conference when responding to further questions I deeply regret my insensitive response to a question from a News Ltd journalist by making an anonymous reference to an incident at News Ltd that has been rejected by the company,” he said.
“I accept their account. I was wrong to raise it, the emotion of the moment is no excuse.
“I especially wish to apologise to the individual at the centre of the incident and others directly impacted. I had no right to raise this issue and especially without their permission.”
Labor politicians had been quick to seize on Mr Morrison’s comments, with Senator Katy Gallagher saying they were “weaponised [as] a defensive strategy to make up for his own failings”.
“It’s no wonder women are so angry because you say one thing and then the prime minister goes out and retaliates like that when he’s questioned,” she told a Senate committee.
Mr Turnbull said it was wrong to claim the corporate sector had the same problems as the political sphere.
“It is not. I mean, the truth is, I had to change the ministerial code to say that ministers must not sleep with their staff,” he said.
“That has been out of order in the corporate world for decades and yet I had to change the rules because frankly far too many of my colleagues thought that it was not OK.”
Minister for Women Marise Payne said the government was focused on finding solutions, including taking up some of the proposals which came out the recent March4Justice rally.
“It has some key priorities outlined in it, some of which the government had already and is already progressing, others of which we will work together to respond to, from the prime minister, to me, to the treasurer, to all of the cabinet,” she told 2GB.
She said processes would be put in place to properly receive and deal with complaints.