Rape and sexism allegations undo plans for early Australian poll

Sydney Letter: Prime minister Scott Morrison’s approval with women has plummeted

Just two months ago the Australian Liberal-led government was riding high in the polls and word was there would be an early election in October.

After being widely criticised for going on holiday to Hawaii at the height of the 2019-2020 bush fires disaster, prime minister Scott Morrison was subsequently praised for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. The tightening of borders kept Covid deaths to just over 900 out of a population of more than 25 million, and though the country entered recession for the first time in 29 years, the economy was back in the black by the second half of 2020.

In January, with deals supposedly locked in for Covid-19 vaccine supplies, an emboldened Morrison promised that four million people would be vaccinated by the end of March. The opposition Labor Party couldn’t get a look-in and an early election looked inevitable.

But then things started to unravel. Just 600,000 people were vaccinated by March 31st, and a series of rape and serial sexism allegations have damaged the government’s reputation.

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On February 15th Brittany Higgins, a former government political staffer, alleged she had been raped by a male colleague in defence minister Linda Reynolds's office a year earlier.

The government’s response looked to many to be more about political management than concern for Higgins’s welfare.

Reynolds, who went on medical leave, reached a legal settlement to pay an undisclosed sum to Higgins after calling her a "lying cow". Morrison was then lambasted for saying his response to the incident had been guided by his wife, Jenny. "She said to me: 'You have to think about this as a father. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?'," Morrison said.

This prompted Grace Tame, who had just been named Australian of the year for her advocacy work for survivors of sexual assault, to say "It shouldn't take having children to have a conscience".

Defamation claim

On February 26th ABC television broadcast an allegation that a current government minister had raped a 16-year-old girl in Sydney in 1988, when he was 17. The report did not name the minister, but on March 3rd attorney-general Christian Porter said he was the subject of the allegation and repeatedly denied the claim in a lengthy press conference.

Porter then went on medical leave, and on March 15th began a defamation claim against ABC and Louise Milligan, the reporter who broke the story. His claim argues that although the story did not name him, he was "readily identifiable".

New South Wales police investigators had applied in March last year for permission to travel to South Australia, where the alleged victim lived, to interview her, but this was vetoed by the deputy police commissioner, reportedly due to Covid travel restrictions. The woman took her own life three months later.

Government MP Andrew Laming was next to come under scrutiny. He stood aside from all parliamentary roles after a series of allegations made against him by women, including trolling on Facebook, hiding in bushes to take photographs of a woman and taking a photograph of a shop worker's bottom while her underwear was visible.

Thin majority

Laming publicly apologised to two of the women and has taken medical leave. But he is still an MP. With a one-seat majority, the coalition government can’t afford to lose his vote.

Government staffers are expendable, though, and one was fired after the leaking of photographs and videos of sex acts in Parliament House, including masturbating on the desk of a female MP.

Porter returned to parliament at the end of March and is still a minister, albeit no longer attorney general, which would have caused difficulty as he is suing the state broadcaster.

In the past it took a lot less than a rape allegation for a government minister to be sidelined. In 1982, then health minister Michael MacKellar was sacked for importing a colour TV but listing it on the customs form as black-and-white, therefore avoiding duty. Two years later a minister of state, Mick Young, was forced to step down when he did not declare a stuffed Paddington Bear toy in his wife's suitcase.

Despite all the allegations, the prime minister’s approval ratings among men has remained rock solid on 65 per cent. But his approval with women has fallen from 65 per cent in February to 49 per cent at the end of March and Labor now leads the government 52 to 48 after preferences.