CANBERRA, Australia: Two Australian ministers have been removed from the cabinet as the ruling conservative party tried to draw a line under dual rape scandals that have convulsed national politics.
Christian Porter was sacked as attorney general on Monday, while Linda Reynolds lost her job as defence minister as Prime Minister Scott Morrison bowed to weeks of mounting public pressure over the scandal.
Porter – the government’s top legal officer and a former state prosecutor – is accused of the rape of a fellow student back in 1988 when the woman was 16 years old.
The woman died last June, reportedly by suicide. Porter denies the allegation.
Reynolds was accused of mishandling an investigation into the alleged rape of a young woman who worked in her parliamentary office and referring to the woman as a “lying cow”.
Both ministers have been on leave for weeks, with Morrison previously insisting they would return to their jobs.
Both will remain in government but in more junior roles. Reynolds will have the portfolio of government services while Porter will be responsible for industry, science and technology.
During the reshuffle Morrison also announced a series of promotions for women, saying it was “the strongest-ever female representation in an Australian cabinet.”
Linda Reynolds has not denied a report that she referred to her former aide Brittany Higgins as a “lying cow”.
Higgins has alleged she was raped by one of Reynolds’ ex-advisers – a charge that has rocked the government.
Last month, the former political adviser alleged she had been attacked in Reynolds’ office at Parliament House after a night out in 2019. The man was later sacked for a separate reason.
The Australian newspaper reported Reynolds had made her disparaging remark on the day Higgins told her story to the media.
In a statement, Reynolds said she had never questioned Higgins’ sexual assault allegation.
It remains to be seen whether the moves will be enough to quell a groundswell of public anger at the pervasive culture of bullying, harassment and sexual violence, notably in government.
The allegations against Porter and Reynolds spurred protests across Australia, with tens of thousands of women taking to the streets to call for gender equality and an end to sexual violence.
In the weeks since the rape allegations surfaced, Morrison’s coalition government has been rocked by a litany of new sex abuse and harassment complaints, including reports of lewd acts by male staff in parliament.
The 52-year-old prime minister has at least a year left in his current term but has seen the crisis erode some popularity garnered from Australia’s solid handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
A Newspoll public opinion survey in mid-March showed Morrison’s Liberal-led coalition trailing the centre-left Labor opposition by 52-48, while support for the prime minister dropped to 55%.
Morrison, who on Saturday reprimanded one of his legislators for bullying two women constituents, has ordered a probe into parliament’s workplace culture but critics say he has failed to map out any new policy initiatives to address the broader issues of sexism and violence against women.