Another candidate for Australia’s governing Liberals was forced to stand down over anti-Muslim comments Friday as the party struggles to fend off charges it harbours right-wing extremists. Jessica Whelan became the third Liberal candidate to quit the race for May 18 elections in the past three days over racist or homophobic social media posts.
Whelan, running for the lower house of parliament from the island state of Tasmania, initially said the posts, which included references to “filthy Muslims” and called for a referendum to ban Muslim immigration, had been doctored by hackers.
But after screenshots of additional anti-Islam posts emerged in the Australian press overnight, Whelan withdrew from the race early Friday. The move came after the Liberals, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, were forced to drop two other candidates in the key state of Victoria on Wednesday after they were found to have posted anti-Islam or homophobic messages on social media.
The incidents provided new ammunition to opposition parties’ charges that the Liberals have become dominated by extremists since party hard-liners ousted moderate prime minister Malcolm Turnbull last August, putting the more conservative Morrison in power.
“The Liberals have been forced to dump another one of its extreme right-wing candidates,” trumpeted Bill Shorten, leader of the main opposition Labor party, which is leading in opinion polls.
Morrison denied that Whelan’s views reflected a broader far-right agenda for his party. “Her views were her views and they do not represent the views of the party I lead,” he said. But Labor has also been hit by controversy as both major party campaigns are roiled by social media posts made by their candidates, sometimes years earlier.
One Labor candidate dropped out of the race earlier this week over posts deemed anti-Semitic, while Liberal leaders demanded on Friday that Shorten sack another Labor hopeful for posting rape jokes and other sexist comments.
Luke Creasey, a 29-year-old school teacher running for office in the Victorian capital of Melbourne, posted the comments in 2012 and Shorten defended him on Friday, saying the candidate regretted the posts made when he was 22.
“He has apologised deeply and he certainly doesn’t hold those views now,” Shorten said, adding, “Jessica Whelan said what she believes now (and) tried to cover it up.” In an increasing fiery campaign, both parties are learning the value of vetting candidates even in long-shot races where they stand little chance of taking office.