Australian party leader accused of drunken scuffle

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The Independent Online

The leader of the Australian minority opposition party has gone on leave after apologising for his "physical aggression," following an incident in which he allegedly drunkenly scuffled with a fellow senator in Parliament House.

Jeannie Ferris, a government whip, said she was left nursing an injured upper arm after she asked the Australian Democrat leader, Senator Andrew Bartlett, to return five bottles of wine she said he had stolen from her Liberal Party's Christmas barbecue last week.

"Senator Bartlett was angry with me because I had gone around to attempt to retrieve five bottles of wine which he had taken back to his office from the coalition Christmas barbecue," she said. "As he was crossing over from a voting position, he grabbed me and started to scream at me.

"I was absolutely stunned that somebody would assault somebody on the floor of the Senate chamber in that way."

The Democrats' embarrassment was compounded after the incident was broadcast on Australian television over the weekend. Ms Ferris said the leader of the Democrats, Australia's third largest political party, appeared affected by alcohol at the time, a claim Mr Bartlett has not denied.

Ms Ferris, confirming other reports, said the incident last Thursday night was not the first time Mr Bartlett's drinking had been a problem. "I have already apologised privately and she has accepted my apology. However, given the public commentary on the matter, it is appropriate for me to repeat that apology publicly and unconditionally," Mr Bartlett said. "Physical aggression is never appropriate and regardless of any of the circumstances surrounding the incident, it is not acceptable."

Mr Bartlett said he had a personal health issue to deal with in the coming year, but refused to elaborate.

The party has issued a statement saying its deputy leader, Lyn Allison, will serve as acting leader. "Senator Bartlett has requested and been granted leave. Senator Bartlett will work through the issues raised by this incident and will do so in private and with the full personal support of his Democrat colleagues."

John Howard, the Prime Minister, criticised the Democrats. "Anything that involves that kind of behaviour, toward women in particular ... is just not acceptable," Mr Howard said yesterday.

His behaviour is a serious blow to the Democrats, who embrace left-of-centre values of non-violence, women's rights and other issues of gender and social equity.