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Facing fury over sex scandals, Australia’s leader fights tears — then retaliates in outburst at reporter

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged March 23 the dissatisfaction with his handling of allegations of mistreatment of women in politics. (Video: Reuters)

SYDNEY — Engulfed by sex scandals that have shaken the highest levels of office in Australia, the country’s leader sought to calm public anger on Tuesday — but ended up digging a deeper political hole after a disastrous news conference.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison summoned reporters to discuss the latest incident in which a government adviser was fired after reportedly sharing an image of himself performing a sexual act on a female lawmaker’s desk. Morrison appeared to fight back tears as he said it had been a “traumatic month” in Parliament.

In February, a former government staff member filed a police complaint alleging she was raped by a colleague nearly two years ago. Since then, four other women have come forward with similar claims. The country’s top law official identified himself as the subject of a rape allegation dating back three decades, which he has strenuously denied. Thousands of women took to the streets in protest across Australian cities last Monday. This week, local news outlets reported that a prayer room in Parliament House had been used for sexual encounters.

“These events have triggered, right across this building and indeed right across the country, women who have put up with this rubbish and this crap for their entire lives, as their mothers did, as their grandmothers did,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra. “We must get this house in order.”

During a question-and-answer session, however, Morrison hit back at a reporter who asked whether his job would be in jeopardy if he were the boss of a business facing similar complaints. Seeming to go off script, the prime minister responded by divulging details of a supposed case involving harassment of a woman in a bathroom by someone in the reporter’s news organization.

“And that matter is being pursued by your own HR department,” Morrison said, adding that “all of us who sit in glass houses” should not “start getting into that.”

The reporter, Andrew Clennell, said he was not aware of any such investigation at his employer, Sky News Australia.

“Why is the prime minister telling me to be careful? Is he threatening me?” Clennell said in a live broadcast following the news conference. “I think the PM has got a bit of explaining to do.”

Sky News Australia is controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. In a statement Tuesday, the media company said the prime minister was wrong to claim an investigation was underway into a complaint of the type he described.

News Corp. said that following the reports of sexually inappropriate behavior at Parliament House, it gave staff the opportunity to speak in confidence and learned of a verbal exchange between two employees in Canberra last year. The exchange was not of a sexual nature, it did not take place in a bathroom and neither person made a complaint.

“The prime minister appears to have joined these two matters and conflated them into an episode of harassment in a toilet that is under current investigation,” said News Corp. Australasia Executive Chairman Michael Miller. “This is simply untrue.”

Sparring so publicly with a News Corp. reporter was all the more extraordinary because Murdoch has long been seen as a supporter of Morrison. The prime minister’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, has suspected the media mogul of helping unseat him in one of the many internal coups that have characterized Australian politics in recent years. Lachlan Murdoch, the CEO of Fox Corp., landed in Australia this month.

In a statement on Facebook later Tuesday, Morrison said he accepted the publisher’s account and added that he deeply regretted his “insensitive response” earlier during the news conference. “I was wrong to raise it, the emotion of the moment is no excuse,” he said, apologizing for his actions.

Michael Bradley, a lawyer who has acted for sexual assault victims, said whether he intended to or not, the prime minister had divulged the erroneous experience of harassment “as a weapon for purely political purposes.”

“Once he went off script, things went very badly, very quickly,” Bradley said. “I think the government is in deep trouble on this subject. The issue is not going away. Every time it starts to quiet down, fresh revelations emerge.”

Bradley was the lawyer for a now-deceased woman who had said she was sexually assaulted by the country’s top law official in January 1988, when she was 16. Christian Porter, the attorney general, who would have been 17 at the time, has strenuously denied the allegation. His lawyers last week launched a defamation action against the state broadcaster, saying he had been subject to “trial by media.”

Support for the ruling Liberal Party — the main conservative party in Australia — has been slowly declining among women for years, even before the assault allegations emerged, said Sarah Cameron, a lecturer in politics at the University of Sydney. At the last election in 2019, the party had a 10-point advantage among men — the biggest gender gap for the party on record.

“The Liberal Party has long been perceived as having a ‘women problem,’ ” Cameron said, adding it “ignores this trend at their peril.”

The conservatives are governing with a wafer-thin majority and must hold an election by 2022. The latest Newspoll of voting intentions showed Morrison’s party trailing center-left Labor by 52-48 percent on a two-party preferred basis.

Kirstin Ferguson, a leadership and culture specialist who advises the leaders of large corporations, said companies have long been told to hold leaders to account.

“The fish rots from the head. Boards are holding CEOs to account, they’re sacking them, they’re reducing their pay,” she said. “I just can’t imagine what would happen if there was a board responsible for Parliament House.”