Prime Minister Scott Morrison has hauled a Coalition MP into his office and demanded he apologise for trolling and online harassing two women in his electorate for several years.
Queensland MP Dr Andrew Laming on Thursday night apologised to both female constituents during a speech to parliament just hours before their story aired on television.
Dr Laming has been accused of years of online harassment on Facebook, with one of the women saying she was pushed to the brink of suicide.
Nine News reports Dr Laming had undertaken a campaign of trolling one woman, Alix Russo, a single mum in the Redlands on Brisbane’s Bayside, and publicly accusing her of misappropriating funds from a charity organisation she worked at, which she denies.
A tearful Ms Russo told Nine News the years of harassment resulted in her wanting to take her own life.
A separate woman, school teacher Sheena Hewlett — the wife of Redland City councillor Lance Hewlett — said Dr Laming also harassed her and her husband online and hid in the bushes and took pictures of them in a park.
Mrs Hewlett said her ordeal had dragged out for six years and she had received no response from Prime Minister Scott Morrison or Malcolm Turnbull when he was in office despite writing to them for help.
Dr Laming who regularly attracts criticism for his behaviour and comments on social media, acknowledged he had lessons to learn about his use of words.
“I want to express my regret and deep apologies for the hurt and the distress that communication may have caused,” he said on Thursday.
“I want to retract those comments and issue a public unreserved apology.”
“I have made a concerted effort to understand the impact of these responses upon others and demonstrate a clear change in the way I communicate,” he said.
“I want to say to any person who has received correspondence from me which fell short of what they expect from an MP that I intend to own that failure and apologise without hesitation.”
The revelation of shocking behaviour comes amid major scrutiny of Federal Parliament’s workplace culture after former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation was aired.
During an interview on Channel Nine’s A Current Affair on Thursday night, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Ms Higgins’ story had triggered “one of the most hard and deeply personal, confronting conversations I have seen take place here”.
But Mr Morrison dug his heels in and defended his Attorney General Christian Porter and Defence minister Senator Linda Reynolds — who are both on leave — and said they would “continue to play a very important role” in his Cabinet.
Mr Morrison declined to say in what positions they might serve or when a reshuffle would be announced.
Mr Porter, who is on mental health leave, has been accused of a historical rape allegation while Senator Reynolds is on medical leave after calling Ms Higgins a “lying cow”.
Mr Morrison repeatedly drew an analogy to former Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who faced his own rape allegation which police declined to prosecute.
“That’s not the first time this has happened in this country,” he said.
The prime minister defended himself against the accusation that he has been late to the issue of sexism, saying that while women “live with it every day”, he has had different experiences.
“For many Australians, this has been like a big wake-up call and it’s been like a red light to say, stop, look, listen’ and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.
Mr Morrison said he often heard statistics about violence against women but Ms Higgins’ story had taken him “deeper into this issue” that he had appreciated before.
“We have gone way deeper, we have gone beyond the sheer shock of violent acts. We are starting to deal with some home truths,” he said.
He called for greater respect in Australian society, including on how people disagree “on this type of issue”.
The prime minister said he had instigated an inquiry into whether his office was backgrounding journalists against Ms Higgins’ family and that he would not condone that conduct.
He told A Current Affair his chief of staff had spoken to a “direct and confidential source” on Thursday, who had allegedly witnessed the backgrounding.