Australian lawmaker's online bullying leave PM Morrison fighting political fires

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had been enjoying strong public approval ratings, chiefly for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, already under fire over his handling of rape accusations in the ruling party, reprimanded one of his lawmakers on Saturday (March 27) for downplaying an apology for bullying two women constituents.

Mr Morrison ordered Mr Andrew Laming to do an empathy course and change his behaviour, after he posted frivolous comments on Facebook that raised doubts about the sincerity of his apology.

If Mr Morrison expelled Mr Laming, his ruling coalition would be reduced to a minority government.

Mr Laming had apologised on Thursday for online abuse of two women over several years after Mr Morrison had scolded him for his "disgraceful" behaviour.

However, Mr Laming later made light of his "unreserved apology" in a post on Facebook.

"In this climate - I willingly apologise - I didn't even know what for at 4pm when I did it," Mr Laming wrote, adding three tongue sticking out emojis and a heart eyes emoji.

The Liberal Party backbencher pulled down his Facebook page on Saturday.

Mr Laming did not immediately respond to a request for comment by Reuters.

The issue is yet another headache for Mr Morrison, and there is speculation that he will reshuffle his Cabinet in a bid to quieten the storm over his government's treatment of and attitude towards women.

Two Cabinet members - Minister of Defence Linda Reynolds and Attorney-General Christian Porter - have taken extended sick leave.

Mr Porter is the subject of an historic rape allegation, which police have decided against pursuing. And there is speculation that the defence minister encouraged a cover-up of a separate alleged rape of a staff member in her office in Parliament.

Mr Morrison had been enjoying strong public approval ratings, chiefly for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

But a Newspoll conducted for The Australian newspaper earlier this month gave Mr Morrison's party its worst rating since the 2019 bush fires, as it showed the centre-left Labour party gaining the upper hand.

Addressing the latest controversy during a news conference on Saturday, Mr Morrison said he asked Mr Laming to undertake a course in empathy.

"I want to see behaviour change and we've all got a job to do with that, and he certainly has a job to do on this," Mr Morrison said in Sydney.

Mr Morrison has said he will announce a series of measures to improve gender equality in politics in the coming weeks, and hinted he may now back quotas on female candidates for his Liberal Party at the next election, due by mid-2022.

Female lawmakers make up less than a third of Mr Morrison's ruling Liberal party, in contrast to the near 50 per cent representation in the opposition Labour party.

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