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.
Mr Morrison, 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 yesterday, 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, Mr 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 could be a 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.
Yesterday Mr Morrison said a staff member involved in “disgusting and sickening” behaviour 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 Mr 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 23pc – the series of scandals and sexual-assault allegations that have roiled parliament now threaten to undermine his government’s credentials and policy agenda.
They started in mid-February when a former media adviser in the defence 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. Mr Morrison has refused to hold an inquiry into the allegations and Mr Porter remains Australia’s first law officer.
“It has been a month of such reports,” Mr Morrison said yesterday as he appeared to choke back tears. “This has been shocking, it has been disgraceful,” he said,
For Kate Ahmad, a Sydney-based neurologist who helped organise last week’s March 4 Justice protests around Australia, Mr Morrison’s words ring hollow. “He seemed insincere because, once again, he didn’t offer any solutions,” Ms Ahmad said.
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 ruling Liberal-National coalition to ensure more women enter parliament.