CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s prime minister said his Liberal Party rejected the anti-Muslim views of an election candidate who on Friday became the third to lose the conservative party’s endorsement in as many days over social media postings.
The scandals surrounding candidates have become distractions for Prime Minister Scott Morrison and opposition leader Bill Shorten as they attempt to focus voters on policies ahead of the May 18 election. Candidates for both the Liberal Party and the center-left Labor Party opposition quit on Friday over their online pasts.
Morrison had stood by Jessica Whelan, a Liberal candidate for the House of Representatives in Tasmania state, amid accusations on Thursday she made anti-Muslim posts on social media. Morrison said screenshots of Whelan’s comments appeared to have been doctored and a complaint had been made to police.
But Whelan stepped aside Friday over further posts published in a newspaper overnight, conceding that she was responsible for some of them.
The Mercury newspaper in Tasmania reported that a 2017 post called for a national vote on whether Muslims should be allowed into Australia. Another post reportedly argued that refugees from Syria and Iraq should not be resettled in Tasmania.
Morrison said neither he nor his party accepted her views.
“Her views were her views and they do not represent the views of the party I lead,” Morrison told reporters.
Another Liberal candidate, Jeremy Hearn, was dumped by the party Wednesday after a series of anti-Muslim comments came to light. The House candidate for Victoria state wrote online in 2016 that taxpayers should not fund Muslim schools because they were “fomenting rebellion against the government.”
Also Wednesday, Peter Killin, who was running for the House in Victoria, resigned from the party after secretly attacking gay government lawmaker Tim Wilson online in December and calling for party members to do more to prevent gays from being elected.
Anti-Muslim bias among some Liberal candidates is politically embarrassing for Morrison. Since an Australian gunman allegedly slaughtered 51 worshippers in New Zealand mosques in March, Shorten has strongly denied media reports that as a senior opposition lawmaker in 2010 he had urged colleagues to capitalize on voters’ growing concern about Muslim immigration.
Labor candidates have also been haunted by the internet’s long memory.
Labor candidate for the House in Victoria, Luke Creasey, on Friday succumbed to days of pressure over offensive Facebook posts by withdrawing his candidacy.
He apologized on Wednesday for sharing a rape joke and pornographic material on his Facebook page in 2012 when he was 22 years old. Shorten initially stood by Creasey, but more lewd posts surfaced on Friday, which included derogatory comments about women.
Creasey, a high school teacher, said in his resignation statement, “I think this is a really important lesson for young people that your social media footprint will follow you.”
Wayne Kurnoth, a Senate candidate from the Northern Territory, was forced to quit the Labor Party on Monday over anti-Semitic social media posts and conspiracy theories including that the world is secretly controlled by an alien race of Jewish lizard shape-shifters, mythological beings able to change their physical forms at will.
Kurnoth did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Morrison and Shorten argued on Friday in the second of three televised leaders’ debates of the campaign. Morrison, a Pentecostal Christian, said he was passionate about freedom of religion and “people shouldn’t be discriminated against in this country.”
Thousands of school children across Australia turned the campaign focus onto climate change by demonstrating outside senior federal lawmakers’ offices on Friday demanding deeper reductions in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and protesting against the Adani coal mine proposed for Queensland.
The government aims to reduce Australian greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030. Labor has promised a more ambitious target of a 45% reduction in the same time frame.
Liberal lawmaker Tony Abbott, who as prime minister in 2014 repealed Australia’s carbon tax, listened to students’ concerns near his Sydney office. He told reporters later, “I think that when you’re at school you need to learn, you’re not there to be an activist.”