Morrison Stumbles Amid Uproar Over Australian Rape Allegations
(Bloomberg) -- With Australia’s economy on the rebound, Covid-19 largely suppressed and vaccinations underway, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government should be riding high. Instead, its ratings are the lowest in over a year amid criticism of his failure to address sexual violence and inequality.
The prime minister, who’s crafted an image as an affable suburban dad, is facing a growing backlash from voters angered by his handling of rape allegations in parliament. As fresh claims of sexual impropriety emerged Tuesday, he risks losing control of the political narrative if he fails to meet their demands for action.
While Australia isn’t expected to go to the polls until the first half of 2022, Morrison cannot afford to leave the issues lingering, especially if he wants to keep the focus on the economic rebuild. The nationwide rallies by tens of thousands of women that have swept the nation point to a potentially potent voice at the next election demanding greater female representation in parliament and tough action against sexual violence and discrimination.
“The next election should have been an easy ride to victory for the government due to its handling of the pandemic but now it’s not because of Morrison’s mishandling of women’s issues,” said Paul Williams, a political analyst at Griffith University in Brisbane who said the issue isn’t threatening the government’s immediate viability.
A Newspoll published last week showed his coalition slipping 4 points behind the main Labor opposition, 48% to 52%. Betting markets that foresaw a comfortable win for the government in the next election are tightening.
On Tuesday, Morrison said a staff member involved in “disgusting and sickening” behavior in parliament has been fired, in the latest blow to his conservative government that’s already been roiled by rape allegations.
The announcement came after the Ten Network broadcast allegations that a group of male government staffers had shared images and videos of lewd acts. One photo showed a man masturbating on the desk of a female lawmaker.
While Morrison’s government has long been accused of failing to adequately address women’s issues, including taking steps to raise the proportion of coalition female lawmakers from 23%, the sexual-assault allegations now threaten to undermine his government’s credentials and policy agenda.
They started in mid-February when a former media adviser in the defense ministry, Brittany Higgins, claimed she was raped two years ago by a fellow staffer within Parliament House and was discouraged from alerting police.
Then, Attorney-General Christian Porter found himself the subject of allegations he raped a fellow school debating team member in the 1980s -- claims he vigorously denies. Morrison has refused to hold an inquiry into the allegations and Porter remains Australia’s first law officer.
“It has been a month of such reports,” Morrison said on Tuesday as he appeared to choke back tears. “This has been shocking, it has been disgraceful,” he said, adding “we must fix it.”
“So Much Anger”
For Kate Ahmad, a Sydney-based neurologist who helped organize last week’s March 4 Justice protests around Australia, Morrison’s words ring hollow.
“To me, he seemed insincere because, once again, he didn’t offer any solutions,” Ahmad said. “There was nothing practical from that press conference that is going to make a difference in the lives of women.”
Ahmad said the campaign is now a unified, nationwide movement after rallies were held in more than 40 cities and towns last week.
The March 4 Justice demands include an independent inquiry into the Porter allegations, improving funding to support victims of domestic violence, implementing recommendations of a report on workplace sexual harassment and introducing a quota system within the Liberal-National coalition to ensure more women enter parliament.
While Morrison on Tuesday said he was “open” to gender quotas in his Liberal party, he left most of the other issues un-addressed.
The issues seem to have blindsided Morrison, 52, who has a reputation as a savvy political operator who won the “unwinnable” election in 2019 helped by his intrinsic understanding of the media. But he’s now stumbling in his dealings with the press.
During the charged news conference on Tuesday, he told a News Corp. journalist that he should “be careful” about criticizing the government’s record and noted the media company was probing a complaint about harassment of a woman in a female toilet. News Corp. rejected the claim as “simply untrue” and Morrison issued a late night apology for his “insensitive response,” adding “I was wrong to raise it, the emotion of the moment is no excuse.”
Morrison was panned for his handling of the Higgins allegations, especially after saying his wife Jenny helped him realize their gravity after persuading him to consider the issue as the father of two two girls.
Women’s campaigners also took issue with his statement in parliament that the March 4 Justice rallies were a “triumph of democracy” because in other countries such marches were being “met with bullets.”
“I’ve never seen so much anger among women who are not usually political,” Ahmad said. “And while women are half the population, there’s a lot of men that are also disgusted.”
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