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Prime Minister reiterates his confidence in Health Minister; Members discuss Tony Abbott's comments about John Brogden.

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Monday 5 September 2005

Prime Minister reiterates his confidence in Health Minister; Members discuss Tony Abbott's comments about John Brogden


MARK COLVIN: It was a day of apologies in Federal politics.  


As well as the Prime Minister over the New Orleans strandings as we heard before, the Health Minister Tony Abbott has now said sorry in Parliament for making a joke at the expense of former New South Wales Opposition leader John Brogden, shortly after he allegedly tried to commit suicide.  


Mr Abbott now concedes he did the wrong thing by making light of Mr Brogden's personal tragedy. 


And he's not arguing with criticisms from his colleagues, one of whom said it was a "disgusting" thing to do. 


Labor's called for Mr Abbott's sacking, but the Prime Minister says that while the Health Minister's comments were wrong, he still has full confidence in him and has no intention of "terminating his commission". 


Alexandra Kirk reports from Canberra. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: It was the Health Minister's quip just 12 hours after John Brogden was rushed to hospital that has politicians on all sides condemning Tony Abbott. 


Asked about a health proposal at a Liberal fundraiser, Mr Abbott said, "If the Government did that, it would be as dead as the former State Liberal leader's political prospects." 


Mr Abbott's first response was he never claimed to be the world's most sensitive person and when pressed said, "If it would make people feel better" if he apologised, he's always happy to do so. 


Labor says it's cruel, insensitive and heartless from the Minister responsible for mental health matters. 


Today, fellow Liberal, Senator George Brandis, expressed his stern disapproval. 


REPORTER 1: Would you have made a joke about a man who just committed suicide? 


GEORGE BRANDIS: No, I think it was a disgusting thing to do. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Just before Question Time, and perhaps sensing Labor's interest in pursuing him, the Health Minister was a little more expansive.  


TONY ABBOTT: Look, I'm very happy to apologise. I don't like upsetting people and obviously the comments on reflection were tacky and I shouldn't have made them. 


REPORTER 2: Has the Prime Minister spoken to you at the moment about your comments? 


TONY ABBOTT: I have lots of conversations with the Prime Minister, I speak to the Prime Minister about almost everything and I don't comment on any particular conversation that I might have had. 


REPORTER 2: So no plans to step aside as Health Minister? 




ALEXANDRA KIRK: But that didn't stop the Opposition's health spokeswoman and manager of opposition business, Julia Gillard.  


JULIA GILLARD: Does the Minister agree that what he has done is, and I quote, "disgusting"? 


SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The Minister for Health and Ageing may choose to answer that question. The Minister for Health and Ageing? 


TONY ABBOTT: Well Mr Speaker, look, I did the wrong thing and I've apologised, Mr Speaker… and I'm not, and I'm, and I, and I, and I, and I'm not, and I'm not going to quibble with criticism that my colleagues wish to make. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Labor maintains the Prime Minister should take action against Mr Abbott, who was sober when he made the comments, applying the same standard he demanded of Mr Brogden.  


John Howard says Tony Abbott is wrong, but is standing by his minister. 


JOHN HOWARD: The Minister for Health and Ageing has apologised for the remarks he made, Mr Speaker… 


(sound of outburst from House) 




JOHN HOWARD: … my responsibility and my authority extends to the appointment of ministers. I believe that the Minister for Health and Ageing has been an outstanding minister and I have no intention of terminating his commission. 


SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The Honourable the leader of the Opposition? 


KIM BEAZLEY: I seek leave to move the following motion, that this House censure the Minister for Health and Ageing for failing to resign after making cruel and callous remarks following the suicide attempt of a former leader of the Opposition in New South Wales, remarks that demonstrate the minister's complete incapacity to provide any leadership on mental health issues. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: The man who Mr Beazley's called a "blockhead" says he accepts he shouldn't have said what he said and it was crass. 


TONY ABBOTT: I do accept that the statements that I made were insensitive. I do accept that they shouldn't have been made. I do accept that they were all together inappropriate. And, Mr Speaker, I am sorry for them, and I have apologised and I am happy to apologise again. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Labor's censure motion against the Health Minister was lost along Party lines by 28 votes. 


And despite Mr Abbott's multiple mea culpas, Julia Gillard maintains the Health Minister is not really sorry. 


JULIA GILLARD: And you know what is the natural meaning of the word apology? It means you're actually sorry. I don't know if anybody's ever explained that to you. Doesn't mean that you actually utter the word, "Oh if I've upset someone I apologise," it actually means you're sorry. 


And what we saw at the end of Question Time, or towards the end of Question Time was the Minister for Health wink at the Prime Minister, "Ooh I got out of that light, ooh got out of that easy, all done, all dusted, all in. You know, a quick little mea culpa and maybe I am a bit disgusting and it's all over and done with." 


It's all play-acting.  


You never felt in any part of your person sorry for what you did or what has happened. The only thing you're sorry for is you got caught. It's the only thing you're sorry for and that's not good enough. 


MARK COLVIN: The Opposition spokeswoman on health, Julia Gillard, ending that report from Alexandra Kirk in Canberra.