Thousands of Aussie Women Protest as Rape Scandals Hit Morrison

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Thousands of women rallied across Australia on Monday to protest against sexual violence and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s handling of rape scandals roiling parliament, as a poll showed the issue has dented the government’s popularity.

More than 40 “March 4 Justice” protests took place across the country, calling for an end to sexism, misogyny, dangerous workplace cultures and a lack of equality in the nation.

There’s been a growing backlash against Morrison’s handling of allegations that former government media adviser Brittany Higgins was raped by a fellow staffer in a minister’s office in 2019. The government is also under fire for refusing to hold an inquiry into claims that Attorney-General Christian Porter raped a fellow member of a school debating team in 1988 -- allegations he denies.

Protesters jeered Morrison at a rally outside Parliament House in Canberra, which senior government lawmakers declined to attend. The biggest cheer came for Higgins, who addressed the vocal crowd.

Thousands of Aussie Women Protest as Rape Scandals Hit Morrison

“We fundamentally recognize the system is broken, the glass ceiling is still in place, and there are significant failings in the power structures within our institutions” Higgins said. “If they aren’t committed to addressing these issues in their own offices, what confidence can the women of Australia have that they will be proactive in addressing this issue in the broader community?”

There are signs the scandals are creating political backlash against Morrison’s conservative government, even as the majority of voters have applauded his handling of the pandemic and the stimulus measures that have limited the economic fallout.

Morrison’s incumbent Liberal-National coalition fell in the Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper on Monday to a 13-month low, giving the Labor opposition a 52%-48% lead. Morrison’s net approval rating declined 4 points, although he remains well ahead of opposition leader Anthony Albanese as preferred prime minister.

Morrison is backing his Porter to remain as Australia’s first law officer after police earlier this month said they wouldn’t proceed with an investigation into the historical rape allegation, due to a lack of admissible evidence.

That’s magnified scrutiny about Morrison’s handling of women’s issues: last month he said he only realized the gravity of Higgins’ allegations after discussing the issue with his wife, who asked him to consider the issue in the context of being a father of two girls.

Orla Tomlinson, 23, an insurance marketing assistant who attended the Sydney rally, said the sexual assault allegations had contributed to a feeling in the community that there was new momentum for change and will force lawmakers to respond.

“Everyone is really fired up -- people are really angry,” Tomlinson said in an emailed response to questions. Sexual assault and gender discrimination needed “to be taken seriously as a human rights issue -- not whether the government in power wants it to be part of their polices or not,” she said.

In Parliament later on Monday, Morrison declined to answer a question on why he didn’t attend the Canberra protest, adding he respected the right of organizers not to accept his invitation for a private meeting. He said the protests were a way to voice “very genuine and real frustrations.”

Thousands of Aussie Women Protest as Rape Scandals Hit Morrison

Andrew Hughes, an expert in political branding at the Australian National University in Canberra, said Morrison needed to be careful not to conclude that his handling of the pandemic will automatically give him enough voter support to win the next election, which needs to be held by May 2022.

“Potentially putting such a massive segment of the population offside when the polls are so tight isn’t a good idea,” Hughes said. “These allegations are taking up so much oxygen for the government that it’s hard for any other news or policies to cut through.”

Female lawmakers have complained for years about a male-dominated and dis-empowering culture in the national capital, Canberra. Despite priding itself on being among the first countries to give women the right to vote and stand as candidates, Australia has plummeted to 50th in global rankings for representation of women in parliament, from 15th in 1999. Sixteen of Morrison’s 22-member Cabinet are men.

The mistreatment of women in parliament made global headlines in 2012 when Australia’s first female prime minister Julia Gillard accused then opposition leader Tony Abbott of misogyny.

Attorney-General Porter is on leave to address mental-health issues since denying the claims in a press conference on March 3. He started proceedings on Monday in the Federal Court of Australia against the national broadcaster and ABC journalist Louise Milligan for defamation, his legal representative said in a statement.

“Over the last few weeks, the attorney-general has been subjected to trial by media without regard to the presumption of innocence or the rules of evidence and without any proper disclosure of the material said to support the untrue allegations,” the statement said. While he was not named in the report, the article made allegations about a senior Cabinet minister and he was easily identifiable, it said.

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