Two Australian ministers were demoted from top cabinet posts Monday as the ruling conservative party tried to draw a line under dual rape scandals that have convulsed national politics.
Linda Reynolds was removed as defence minister and Christian Porter as attorney-general, as embattled Prime Minister Scott Morrison bowed to weeks of mounting public pressure.
Porter — the government’s top legal officer and a former state prosecutor — is accused of raping a 16-year-old fellow student in 1988, an allegation he denies.
The woman died last June, reportedly by suicide.
Reynolds was accused of mishandling an investigation into the alleged rape of a young staffer 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.
Now, both will remain in government but manage the less coveted portfolios of government services for Reynolds, and industry, science and technology for Porter.
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 — from a staff member photographed masturbating on an MP’s desk, to a state MP being accused of raping a sex worker, to another MP apologising for harassing women online.
A Morrison media blitz aimed at showing his empathy with women has only added to the furore through a series of missteps.
During the reshuffle Morrison also announced a series of promotions for women, saying it was “the strongest ever female representation in an Australian cabinet.”
It remains to be seen if the move will be enough to quell a groundswell of public anger at the pervasive culture of bullying, harassment and sexual violence, notably in government.
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.
The country has just occasional cases of community transmission and life has largely returned to normal.
A Newspoll survey released on Sunday showed Morrison’s approval rating at its lowest level in a year.
His approval fell seven points to 55 percent and his Liberal-led coalition is trailing the centre-left Labor opposition by 52-48, with other polls showing signs that his support among women is cratering.
– New sheriff in town –
Reynolds will be replaced at defence by controversial home affairs minister Peter Dutton, a powerful right-wing politician seen as hawkish on China’s growing power in the Asia-Pacific region.
Dutton has lambasted Beijing for alleged cyberattacks on Australia and the “theft” of intellectual property.
He also questioned the Chinese Communist Party’s motives in the South China Sea and via its Belt and Road Initiative, saying in 2019 that “the threat is very real”.