Two Australian Cabinet ministers demoted after dual rape scandals

SPH Brightcove Video
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reshuffled his Cabinet on Monday as he sought to repair his standing following a series of damaging allegations about the mistreatment of female lawmakers and staff.
Ms Linda Reynolds (left) and Mr Christian Porter will remain in government, but handle less coveted portfolios. PHOTOS: LINDA REYNOLDS/TWITTER, AFP

CANBERRA (AFP) - Two Australian ministers were demoted from top Cabinet posts Monday (March 29) as the ruling conservative party tried to draw a line under dual rape scandals that have convulsed national politics.

Ms Linda Reynolds was removed as Defence Minister and Mr Christian Porter as Attorney-General, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison bowed to weeks of mounting public pressure.

Ms Reynolds will be replaced by Mr Peter Dutton, who was previously Minister of Home Affairs, while Ms Michaelia Cash will replace Mr Porter.

Mr 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.

Ms 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 Mr Morrison previously insisting they would return to their jobs.

Now, both will remain in government, handling less coveted portfolios of government services for Ms Reynolds, and industry, science and technology for Mr Porter.

During the reshuffle, Mr 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 allegations against Mr Porter and Ms 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.

Mr Peter Dutton (left) will replace Ms Linda Reynolds as Defence Minister and Ms Michaelia Cash (right) will replace Mr Christian Porter as Attorney-General. PHOTOS: PETER DUTTON/FACEBOOK, SENATOR MICHAELIA CASH/FACEBOOK

In the weeks since the rape allegations surfaced, Mr 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 Mr Morrison media blitz aimed at showing his empathy with women has only added to the furore through a series of missteps.

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 public opinion survey in mid-March showed Morrison's Liberal-led coalition trailing the centre-left Labor opposition by 52-48, with other polls showing signs that his support among women is cratering.

Ms Reynolds replacement - Mr Dutton - is a powerful right-wing politician seen as hawkish on China's growing power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Mr 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".

The former policeman has overseen a harsh policy against refugees, riled close ally New Zealand by deporting criminal Kiwis and publicly clashed with the Chinese government.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.