Biased social posts forcing out some Australian candidates

ROD McGUIRK

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australian political parties have cut loose or chastised several of their candidates less than three weeks before elections for sexist, anti-Muslim, racist and homophobic remarks mostly made on social media.

The scandals surrounding candidates have become recurring distractions for Prime Minister Scott Morrison and opposition leader Bill Shorten this week as they attempt to sell their policies on the campaign trail ahead of the May 18 vote. A frustrated Morrison has suggested his conservative Liberal Party update its candidate vetting processes to deal with the online generation.

Morrison on Thursday stood by Jessica Whelan, a Liberal candidate for the House of Representatives in Tasmania state, amid accusations 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.

"I don't think it's hard to believe in this day and age that images can be doctored," Morrison told reporters.

But Whelan stepped aside Friday over further posts published in a newspaper overnight.

"Jess Whelan vehemently maintains that she did not make the vulgar post reported in yesterday's media," her campaign team said in a statement. "However, she accepts that she has made some of the other posts in question."

Liberal campaign spokesman Simon Birmingham told Nine Network television that "further posts" had come to light and "that information has not been declared or disclosed by the candidate previously, and we won't tolerate that, we won't accept that."

Birmingham did not detail the content of the posts, but 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.

Another Liberal candidate, Jeremy Hearn, was dumped by the party Wednesday after a series of anti-Muslim comments came to light. The House of Representatives 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 also 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.

The center-left opposition Labor Party also has been embarrassed by candidates it has endorsed.

Wayne Kurnoth, a Senate candidate from the Northern Territory, was forced to quit the party 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 could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

Luke Creasey, a Labor candidate for the House from Victoria state, apologized Wednesday for sharing a rape joke and pornographic material on his Facebook page in 2012.

"It's been brought to my attention that some posts I shared on social media a number of years ago have been circulated," Creasey said. "They were stupid, immature and in no way reflect the views I hold today."

Steve Dickson, a Senate candidate for the minor One Nation party in Queensland state, quit the race Tuesday after video of him groping and propositioning dancers in a U.S. strip club was broadcast on national television.

Another One Nation candidate, Ross Macdonald, who is running for the House in Queensland, has since come under scrutiny after a newspaper on Wednesday published his social media posts of grabbing a woman's breast during a vacation in Thailand and other sexual images.

Some of the ill-fated candidates are thought to be victims of political enemies who have compiled dirt files and timed the release of the online indiscretions to maximize political gain.

Parties cannot replace dumped candidates because the ballot papers have already been printed and early voting began Monday.