Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The leader of Australia's third-largest party finds his political future in doubt, after he attacked a female lawmaker on the floor of the Senate in an alcohol-fueled altercation that has shaken the country's left-wing.
Senator Andrew Bartlett made public and private apologies over the weekend after he grabbed a member of Prime Minister John Howard's conservative coalition and repeatedly swore at her.
The late-night incident during a Senate session last week was recorded on parliamentary cameras.
Bartlett, 39, said he would take leave to deal with "personal health issues."
His party said 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."
Bartlett has for 14 months been leader of the Australian Democrats, a left-wing party which together with another minor party, the Greens, is the country's most vociferous critic of the Bush administration.
Although a small party, the Democrats have since 1981 held or shared the balance of power in the Senate, where in recent times it has opposed government policy on Iraq, anti-terrorism measures, and other issues. It has recently been pressing for legal recognition for same-sex couples.
Last Thursday evening, government whip Senator Jeanne Ferris took Bartlett to task after he gatecrashed a coalition festive season barbecue at the parliamentary complex and walked off with five bottles of wine. She demanded that he return the wine.
Later that night, Bartlett accosted the 62-year-old Ferris on the Senate floor, grabbed her and injured her arm, and swore at her. He then followed her out of the chamber and allegedly continued to abuse her.
As word of the incident spread, many Australians were shocked by that behavior from the leader of a party that promotes pacifism, women's rights, and programs designed to reduce alcohol abuse.
The leaders of Australia's two major parties, Howard and newly elected Labor leader Mark Latham, both condemned Bartlett's behavior, as did women's groups.
Some politicians also highlighted the problem of a lawmaker drinking while parliament holds late-night sessions to finish business before year-end recess.
The Democrats have over the past two decades become Australia's most successful minor party, but in recent times have suffered from internal disputes and seen their poll ratings slide.
In 2001 elections, the Democrats won 5.4 percent of the vote (Howard's coalition won 43.1 percent, Labor 37.8 and the Greens 5.0.)
In a late November opinion poll, the Democrats scored just two percent, while the Greens stood at six.
With another election scheduled for later next year, the Democrats' acting leader, Senator Lyn Allison, and other colleagues will be discussing Bartlett's future and that of the party.
The last public statement Bartlett made before the incident that may have jeopardized his political career was one criticizing the Howard government's decision to support Washington's missile defense program.
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