Australian PM in tearful appeal as new scandal hits government

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Australia’s prime minister has made a tearful appeal for a change in public attitudes towards women in the wake of “despicable” new allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour in parliament.

Scott Morrison said on Tuesday that bad behaviour towards women had to stop and acknowledged growing public anger over his response to allegations of rape and inappropriate behaviour in politics.

“I am shocked and I am disgusted. It is shameful,” he in reference to a video allegedly showing a staff member in the ruling Liberal party performing lewd acts on the desks of female MPs in parliament.

A staff member was sacked following the broadcast of the video by Ten News this week and Morrison said more people could lose their jobs. A whistleblower also alleged Liberal party staff members had procured sex workers for MPs and the parliament’s meditation room was regularly used for sex.

The prime minister told journalists he was open to gender quotas in the Liberal party to boost representation of women — a proposal he previously rejected. But he said inappropriate behaviour towards women was not restricted to politics and required societal change.

“I have heard about women being marginalised, women being intimidated, women being belittled, women being diminished and women being objectified. That is not OK,” said Morrison.

The video is the latest scandal to engulf the conservative government, which has been struggling to respond to two separate rape allegations over the past five weeks.

The first case involves a Liberal party adviser who alleges she was raped by a colleague in the office of the minister for defence in 2019. Linda Reynolds, the defence minister, has taken medical leave in the wake of the crisis.

The second involves Christian Porter, Australia’s attorney-general, who has denied an allegation he raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988. The woman registered a complaint with police last year but subsequently died by suicide.

Morrison has rejected calls for an independent inquiry into the Porter allegations, saying he was “an innocent man under our law” and would remain in his job when he returned from sick leave.

But he faces a backlash over his handling of the allegations. Tens of thousands of people took part in protests last week demanding an end to violence against women. The conservative government has fallen behind Labor for the first time in a year, according to opinion polls.

The allegations have come as the government’s majority has been cut to a single seat after a Liberal party MP resigned to sit as an independent last month.

Morrison acknowledged that many Australians, especially women, believed he had not heard them, during a press conference in which he choked back tears when talking about his family.

“That greatly distresses me. I have been doing a lot of listening over the past month,” he said.

Moments later Morrison responded angrily after being asked whether he had lost control of ministerial staff. He told a Sky News reporter that his own employer was investigating a complaint made by a woman about alleged harassment in the female toilets.

“You are free to make your criticisms and to stand on that pedestal but be careful,” said Morrison.

A Sky News spokeswoman told the Financial Times that the matter raised by Morrison did not pertain to Sky News.

News Corp, which owns Sky News, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Labor accused Morrison of “weaponising” the scandal by detailing a private complaint in public.

“It’s just unbelievable, and it’s no wonder women are so angry because you say one thing and then the prime minister goes out and retaliates like that when he’s questioned,” said Katy Gallagher, a Labor senator.

“What about the woman at the heart of that complaint now? National news.” 

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