Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull condemns alleged headbutt on Tony Abbott as vote on gay marriage looms
Marriage equality supporters have been quick to condemn the incident and denounce political violence but opponents have used it to rally against same-sex marriage
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has condemned an alleged headbutt of Tony Abbott by a marriage equality supporter but says the incident is one of “a relatively small number” of such cases in the postal survey campaign.
Speaking to 3AW Radio on Friday, Turnbull said it was “a disgraceful incident” and urged calm after what he said amounted to an assault of the former prime minister. “Any violence coming into our political life is absolutely to be condemned,” he said.
The Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz has claimed that the alleged incident is a “harbinger” of more violence, despite conceding it is not indicative of the yes campaign generally.
Marriage equality supporters have been quick to condemn the incident and denounce political violence but opponents have used it to rally against same-sex marriage.
Turnbull said Australia had a tradition of respectful political debate “sometimes with strong views expressed, but without violence”.
“This is one of a number, a relatively small number of incidents, but any one is one too many.”
Turnbull said “of course” the incident did not undermine the yes case generally, but campaigners should recognise that if they used violent or abusive language or engaged in “violent conduct”, they were not helping their case.
He urged everyone taking part in the marriage equality debate to “exercise calm and restraint” and said that “overwhelmingly” Australians had engaged in the debate respectfully.
At a media conference in Hobart on Friday, Abbott said Australia had “come to a pretty sorry pass” if you could not oppose same-sex marriage without being headbutted.
“This is one of the many reasons I say we should think long and hard before going down this path,” he said.
Abbott said there was “no doubt there has been some ugliness as part of this debate, but I regret to say that nearly all of it seems to becoming from one side and that is the people who tell us that love is love”.
In the past two weeks there have been reports that a Burnie cafe was threatened with arson, a 14-year-old Dubbo girl received a death threat and Kevin Rudd’s godson was bashed, all for supporting marriage equality.
On Friday, Abetz told ABC News Breakfast the incident highlighted “the ugliness of the yes campaign” and demonstrated that the slogan “love is love” was “unfortunately shown in practice to be intolerance, not wanting people to be able to have their point of view”.
Abetz said Abbott had a swollen lip “for a short while” but “was in very fine form” at dinner later that evening. “He will continue to campaign for the no vote, unabated.”
Asked if the incident was out of character with the yes campaign, Abetz conceded: “I think we can all agree with that.” But he said intolerance in the debate had “overwhelmingly been one-way traffic”.
“[This] is just a bit of a foretaste of what will come should the yes campaigners feel even more empowered in the event that they were successful with the vote ... This is just a bit of a harbinger of what is likely to occur.”
The Australian Marriage Equality co-chair Alex Greenwich said the Equality Campaign “condemns the violence against Tony Abbott that has been reported”.
“There is never a place for violence or abuse. Marriage equality is about respect and dignity for every Australian. There is no room for any disrespect either physical or verbal in this national debate.”
Greenwich said the yes campaign “has always and will continue to call for respect and everyone involved in this debate to act in a respectful and dignified way”.
The Tasmanians United for Marriage Equality spokesman, Rodney Croome, urged yes and no supporters “to act with respect and restraint because, when this postal survey is over, we will still have to live together, side by side, as Australians”.
Croome condemned the alleged attack as “beneath contempt” but said the yes campaign could not be “judged on the basis of the delinquency of one person whose only link to the yes campaign was wearing a badge”.
Abbott first told the story to Steve Price and the Sky News host Andrew Bolt on Melbourne’s 3AW radio on Thursday. “I was walking from the Mercury office across that docks area, that beautiful docks area in Hobart, towards my hotel,” Abbott said.
“A fellow sung out at me, ‘Hey Tony!’ I turned around, there was a chap wearing a vote yes badge. He says, ‘I wanna shake your hand.’ I went over to shake his hand and then he headbutted me.
“Now he wasn’t very good at it, I’ve got to say, but he did make contact. The only damage was a very, very slightly swollen lip.
“I was with a member of my staff [who] briefly grappled with this guy, and he then ran off swearing his head off.”
A spokesman for Abbott said the staffer present had “sought to restrain the perpetrator after he assaulted Mr Abbott”.
“The Australian federal police were notified as soon as the incident occurred and both he and Mr Abbott have given statements to Tasmania police.”
Turnbull said it was “very important that the assailant is identified and charged”.
At a media conference, a police commander, Tony Cerritelli, said the alleged attacker was described as about 40 years old, of medium build, between five feet nine inches and five feet 11 inches tall, with “short, spiky, sandy-strawberry” coloured hair and nose and ear piercings.
He was said to be wearing a black leather jacket, possibly an army green-coloured shirt, and a “vote yes” badge. He was probably with another man who was not involved in the attack.
Cerritelli said police were investigating whether there was CCTV footage. The Hobart docks area is covered by several cameras. Asked if he expected an arrest by the end of the day, he said: “I’m very confident that we will have a resolution.”
The commander said detectives had contacted Abbott had last night after becoming aware of the alleged assault via the media. Abbott then made a police statement. He was unclear if the attack had been reported to the Australian federal police before Tasmania police contacted the former prime minister.
“We treat this type of event as any other event ... while it is a high-profile matter, we need to make sure the evidentiary requirements and procedural requirements are adhered to,” he said.