Scott Morrison has brushed off claims his government was slow to act in the three weeks after it learned Australian women were subjected to a compulsory intimate medical examination at Doha airport.
The foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, on Wednesday confirmed she had not had a direct conversation with the prime minister about the 2 October incident.
With political pressure building in Canberra for a stronger response, the prime minister faced questions in parliament as to why the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) had not spoken to any of the women involved and why Payne had not contacted her direct ministerial counterpart in the Qatari government.
Morrison said his government had “registered its strong disapproval and outrage” at the invasive treatment and would take further action once it had considered a report the Qatari government had promised to provide by the end of this week.
Labor gave priority to the issue in question time on Wednesday after the Australian government confirmed 18 women on a flight from Doha to Sydney had been subjected to the compulsory medical examination, including 13 Australian citizens and five people of other nationalities. Passengers from 10 flights leaving Doha on the evening of 2 October were affected.
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, asked Morrison to specify when he first spoke to Payne “about the horrific treatment of Australian women removed from planes in Qatar almost a month ago”.
“As was indicated by the foreign minister in estimates earlier today, [it] was during the course of this week,” Morrison replied in a brief response.
In fact, Payne had earlier told an estimates committee hearing she had not yet discussed the matter directly with the prime minister, but his office had been advised on 5 October – the same day her office was advised.
“I don’t recall that I have had a specific conversation with the prime minister,” Payne said in the morning session.
Payne later tried to tidy up the apparent contradiction when asked about Morrison’s question time assertion.
She reaffirmed that she and Morrison had not had a one-on-one conversation about the incident but added that there there was a broader meeting with other government colleagues at which it was raised this week.
“The matter was raised in a discussion with colleagues, a regular meeting with a small number of colleagues … the prime minister and I were both present,” the minister told Senate estimates later on Wednesday.
Payne said while she and Morrison had not had “a bilateral conversation” she had “engaged with his office”.
Payne telephoned the Qatari ambassador to Australia this week to reiterate the concerns an official had conveyed to him on 6 October and to request the report by the end of the week. She has also made arrangements to speak with the Qatari foreign minister once the report is handed over.
The Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Sydney was delayed from taking off on the evening of 2 October, and after three hours the women were asked by the cabin crew, on behalf of Qatari authorities, to disembark.
They were then led through the airport to an underground area, told to get into waiting ambulances, and then told to remove their underwear so a female medical professional could examine them to see if they had recently given birth.
The government of Qatar said on Wednesday that the “urgently decided” search was sparked by the discovery of a newborn baby placed into a trash can. The child is alive and in the care of authorities. Qatar said it regretted any distress caused.
One of the women was a Dfat employee and emailed the department about the incident before the plane had left Qatar. Other women made an official report with the Australian federal police when they landed in Sydney on 3 October.
The first assistant secretary of the department, Dr Angela McDonald, told Senate estimates that the consulate in Qatar was informed of the incident overnight on 3 October and began an investigation. Australia sent a formal diplomatic note to Qatar on 5 October requesting a full and detailed explanation and McDonald spoke to the Qatari ambassador on 6 October.
However, Payne did not speak to Qatar’s ambassador to Australia, or the Qatari foreign minister, or anyone directly involved in the incident outside of her department, until this week. She told Senate estimates that she was in Tokyo – for the Quad meeting – when the incident occurred and then in two weeks of isolation until this week.
Payne said she chose not to speak directly to the ambassador or her Qatari counterpart prior to this week “because there had been significant contact made with the Qatari system … through senior officials” and because she wished to speak to the foreign minister after she had read the government of Qatar’s report on the incident. That report is expected “very soon”, she said.
It wasn’t until Tuesday that Australian authorities learned that female passengers on 10 flights – including the Doha to Sydney flight – had been affected. Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Penny Wong, asked Payne why she had not tried to identify other countries that may have been affected sooner, so they could join together in making their disapproval known to Qatar.
“Other missions are engaging with Australia in Doha on this matter,” Payne said.
Guardian Australia contacted Dfat about the incident on 4 October and was told on 5 October that the department was “aware of concerning reports” and was “seeking further information from the Qatari authorities and Qatar Airways”.
The estimates committee was told no one from Dfat had been in direct contact with the women upon their return to Australia because domestic agencies were involved once people arrived from abroad. The Australian federal police and New South Wales police have been in contact.
Albanese said the government’s response was “not good enough”. He said he was shocked Morrison and Payne had not spoken with their Qatari counterparts to make clear “Australia regards this as an extreme violation of the human rights of our citizens”. He said the women deserved an unqualified apology and compensation.
Experts have warned that avenues for legal redress are limited.
Morrison told reporters on Wednesday the invasive treatment of the women was “unacceptable” and “appalling” and his government would “continue to take a very strident approach” in seeking to prevent a repeat.