Malcolm Turnbull says Australia must put ‘safety first’ when asked about burqa ban

Malcolm Turnbull said there were certain environments in which people’s faces shouldn’t be covered when asked about a call to ban the burqa in public buildings – but he insists it is a matter of “safety first” and is unrelated to religion.

The comments came in an interview with 4BC Radio in which Turnbull also refused to be drawn about an imminent cabinet reshuffle, after a report suggested Greg Hunt was in the box seat to become the health minister.

When asked a leading question about “how much of a risk to national security” the burqa is, Turnbull said: “It’s not something that you should be generalising about but there are obviously environments where it’s important for people’s faces not to be covered for identity reasons.

“We don’t tell people how to dress in Australia. But, where it’s important that people’s identity be plain, their faces shouldn’t be covered.”

Asked about One Nation’s call to ban the burqa in public buildings in Queensland, Turnbull said it “depends on each environment” whether new laws were required to regulate face coverings.

“The fundamental rule has got to be safety first … This has got nothing to do with religion or any of that. It is a simple, practical matter.”

At an earlier press conference in Scarborough, Queensland, Turnbull said the proposed ban was “a decision for the relevant governments or authorities”.

“But we don’t see a lot of burqas in Australia, let’s face it,” he said. “They’re pretty few and far between. We have a very open society.”

Turnbull was also asked about the vacancy in the health portfolio created when Sussan Ley resigned on Friday after an investigation into her travel expense claims including what she called an “error of judgment” in charging for a trip to the Gold Coast in which she bought a $795,000 apartment.

Early speculation centred around the possibility Arthur Sinodinos, the acting health minister, would keep the role permanently. On Sunday the Australian Medical Association welcomed his possible appointment.

But on Tuesday Sky News reported Hunt was favourite to take the health portfolio and Sinodinos would take Hunt’s portfolios of industry, innovation and science.

Asked at the press conference if he would give the health portfolio to Sinodinos, Turnbull said only that an announcement would be made “very shortly”.

“I have such a talented team,” he said. “They’re all extremely able and I’m not going to comment on any individual in respect of the vacancy that you’ve referred to.”

Turnbull refused to release the report by the secretary of his department into Ley’s expenses, citing the fact it is advice to the prime minister and governance committee of cabinet and “the practice has not been to release advice of that kind”.