Tens of thousands of Australians marched in nationwide protests on Monday demanding an end to violence against women, amid a widening government crisis following two allegations of rape.
Two cabinet ministers have taken sick leave and the government has suffered a steep fall in support in the wake of allegations that have focused attention on what critics claim is a toxic culture for women in politics.
Shortly before the protests began, Christian Porter, Australia’s attorney-general, commenced legal proceedings against national broadcaster ABC for defamation over its reporting of an allegation that he raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988.
The woman reported the allegation to police last year and later died by suicide. Several friends of the woman subsequently sent details of the allegation to the prime minister and other politicians, which led to the case’s public disclosure and calls for a public inquiry.
Porter, who is on sick leave, has denied the allegation. In a statement issued through his lawyer on Monday, Porter said he was subjected to a “trial by media” and that claims made by the ABC should be determined in court.
The ABC said it would defend the legal action.
Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, has resisted calls from opposition parties for an independent inquiry into the allegation against Porter. But he is under increasing pressure to tackle an issue that has dominated politics for more than a month.
A poll on Monday showed support for the ruling coalition had fallen behind Labor for the first time in a year. The Liberal party also suffered a stinging election defeat in Western Australia, with the party on course to win just two or possibly three seats out of 59 available.
The issue exploded on to the agenda last month when Brittany Higgins, a former Liberal party adviser, alleged that she was raped by a colleague in the office of Linda Reynolds, Australia’s defence minister, in 2019.
She reported the incident to the police but did not pursue the complaint because she felt her job was “on the line”, as the alleged rape occurred before the 2019 election.
Higgins resigned from the Liberal party in January and announced she planned to proceed with a police investigation and a complaint against the government.
At one of about 40 “March4Justice” protests held in cities and towns across Australia on Monday, Higgins told a crowd in Canberra that she spoke out to protect other women.
“We fundamentally recognise the system is broken, the glass ceiling is still in place, and there are significant failings in the power structures within our institution,” she said.
“March 4 Justice” presented a petition with 90,000 signatures to lawmakers, demanding full independent investigations into all cases of gender-based violence as well as full public accountability.
Morrison refused a request to meet protesters on the lawns of parliament house, while organisers rebuffed his offer to meet in his office.
Political analysts warned that the issue could damage the Liberal party, which has a one-seat majority in parliament and faces an election next year.
“In the 2019 federal election, 45 per cent of men gave their first preference to the Liberal Party, but just 35 per cent of women did so,” said Sarah Cameron, a political scientist at University of Sydney.
“The current crisis has the potential to exacerbate the gender gap in voting behaviour. The Liberal Party ignores it at its peril.”