The head of Malcolm Turnbull’s press operation and another prime ministerial staffer were involved in a drinking incident that left some "shocked and appalled" during previous PM Tony Abbott’s trip to an alcohol-restricted Indigenous community in Queensland’s north last year.
The newly appointed Coalition election press manager, Nicole Chant, and fellow Turnbull staffer James Hart posed for a selfie taken by Channel 10 cameraman Peter Atkinson on a trip to Bamaga in August. The town has been crippled by alcohol over many generations and while it’s still possible to buy and consume alcohol there, heavy restrictions apply.
The photo appears to show the trio drinking at the local pub, with Chant clearly playing up to the camera. BuzzFeed News has obtained the photo, which was sent in an iMessage group chat that included young Indigenous journalists on the former PM’s trip.
There was also a caption. Along with the photo, Atkinson sent the text: “Sorry I’m out having a bender with the locals!” It's understood they were not having drinks with members of the local community at the time.
According to one person on the message thread who spoke to BuzzFeed News, it left people “completely shocked and appalled”.
“I mean, they were in a dry community with big problems with booze and family violence," they said. "They are supposed to be visiting and listening to Indigenous people and finding out about the problems facing them. It looked like a big joke to them.”
Chant and Hart worked as part of Abbott's media team before he was rolled by Malcolm Turnbull. They now work in Turnbull’s press team, Chant as the press manager for his election campaign.
“I mean they were in a dry community with big problems with booze and family violence. ... It looked like a big joke to them.”
Chant told BuzzFeed News: “We went to the pub to have a drink and play some pool after a long day. Someone took the photo and shared it on a group text. I didn’t know that."
"I don’t see that there is a problem in that," she said.
Before becoming prime minister, Abbott promised to spend a week every year in an Indigenous community in an effort to see what it was like for locals. He even called himself the “prime minister for Indigenous affairs”.
“I promised before the last election to spend a week absorbed in the real life of Indigenous communities,” he said, days before the trip to Bamaga last year. “I want to see for myself the challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
But Abbott had already damaged relations with Indigenous Australia when he called Australia “unsettled” before 1788 and then referred to Aboriginal people living in remote communities as having made a “lifestyle choice”.
Sources told BuzzFeed News that later on the night the selfie was taken, dozens of members of the travelling press gathered for “off-the-record” drinks with the former PM and his staff at the Cape York Peninsula Lodge. Staff at the lodge have confirmed that Abbott held a function with journalists during their stay.
Abbott himself drank red wine, while staff members mingled with journalists who were also drinking alcohol. They were not committing a crime of any kind. The Cape York Peninsula Lodge is one of the only premises in the region with a licence to serve alcohol.
But one person in attendance told BuzzFeed News: “I didn’t think it was a good look, that in a community that is dry, that has significant issues around dependance and stimulants, to be getting on it with the prime minister.”
It was also described by another journalist as a “piss-up with the PM”.
It’s understood that a screenshot of the photo was immediately sent to the president of the parliamentary press gallery, Sky News host David Speers. According to a source, Speers was “furious” at the incident and dismayed that the selfie and the mocking caption had been sent to young Indigenous journalists on the trip. He alerted senior members of the prime minister’s office, who called the other journalists on the trip to apologise. Cameraman Paul Atkinson also apologised.
But Chant told BuzzFeed News that she didn’t personally apologise.
“I didn’t think it was a good look, that in a community that is dry, that has significant issues around dependance and stimulants, to be getting on it with the prime minister.”
A spokesperson for SBS/NITV confirmed the incident to BuzzFeed News and said the broadcaster had “raised the matter with the relevant parties at the time and was satisfied that it was dealt with".
Dan Bourchier, an Indigenous journalist for Sky News who was also on the trip, told BuzzFeed News: “It was a serious matter, an apology was given at the time from those involved and the matter is closed.”
Channel 10 declined to comment, while BuzzFeed News has yet to hear back from former PM Tony Abbott, James Hart, or David Speers.
One person on the trip told BuzzFeed News the incident reflected broader problems in the former PM’s office: “I don’t think they got it. Their trip was so stage-managed that something like that never resonated or they never realised.”
“Elders came to meet with the prime minister and as they were leaving, one bumped into me and said, ‘Well, that was a waste of time, we came here and he just wanted to talk about himself. He didn’t want to hear what we had to say.’
“They were too clever by half in stage-managing that trip and probably thought that things like that weren’t an issue.”