Australia's attorney general comes forward to deny historical rape allegation

Australia’s attorney general, Christian Porter, has dismissed a historical rape accusation against him as “entirely untrue” after outing himself as the subject of claims made by a woman who took her own life last year.

Fronting the media for an at-times tearful news conference, Porter also resisted calls to stand aside as the country’s first law officer amid growing criticism of how the conservative government has handled accusations of rape and sexual assault.

The government had already been under pressure over an unrelated rape allegation, after a young political staffer came forward to say she felt forced to choose between her career and pursuing a police investigation after she was allegedly assaulted by a more senior colleague in a ministerial office in Parliament House in Canberra 2019.

Then last week, news reports revealed that the prime minister had received a letter detailing rape accusations against an unnamed male member of his cabinet, dating back to January 1988. The woman was 16 at the time of the alleged rape. She took her life last year.

Those accusations effectively put a cloud over the 16 male members of Scott Morrison’s cabinet for five days, because mainstream media outlets did not name the minister, fearing potential action under the country’s strict defamation laws.

Porter called a media conference in his home state of Western Australia on Wednesday to say he was “deeply sorry” about the question mark that had been placed over the reputation of his fellow cabinet members. He said he did not comment on the allegations any sooner because he was following police process and it risked prejudicing any investigation.

He told reporters he remembered the complainant as an “intelligent, bright, happy person” and that she had been a friend and a member a debating team he was on. He was 17.

But he said the alleged incident “simply did not happen”. He also said he had not had contact with her since 1988.

Porter, who was a crown prosecutor before he entered politics, said he had first heard in November last year of “a rumour being spread by a small number of people that I had somehow offended against someone decades ago in a way that was never specified to me”.

Porter said he had also discussed the matter last week with Morrison, the prime minister, who had received word of a letter detailing allegations.

Porter said on Wednesday he would take a few weeks of leave to seek mental health support, but maintained that he would not quit as the country’s first law officer. He argued he should not lose his job over untested accusations.

“If I stand down from my position as attorney general because of an allegation about something that simply did not happen, then any person in Australia can lose their career, their job, their life’s work based on nothing more than an accusation that appears in print,” Porter said.

“If that happens, anyone in public life is able to be removed simply by the printing of an allegation. Every child we raise can have their lives destroyed by online reporting of accusations alone.”

Porter said such a resignation would set a new standard and there “wouldn’t be much need for an Attorney-General anyway because there would be no rule of law left to protect in this country”.

New South Wales police determined on Tuesday that there was insufficient admissible evidence to proceed with an investigation, after the death of the alleged victim. There have been growing calls for Morrison to launch an independent inquiry.

There remains the prospect of a coronial inquest in South Australia, the state where the woman died in June 2020.

The South Australian coroner, David Whittle, said on Wednesday that he had received a brief of evidence from the state’s police force in March – but he had determined that the police investigation was “incomplete” in light of “recent media reports”.

Once the police investigation had been completed to his satisfaction, the coroner would consider launching an inquest.

Parliament was rocked last month by accusations by a former staffer, Brittany Higgins, that she was raped on the couch of the defence industry minister’s office by a more senior colleague in 2019. Higgins recently restarted her police complaint, having said she felt pressure not to proceed with a formal investigation at the time.

That case prompted the government to launch several reviews into workplace culture and the handling of accusations in politics.

Porter’s press conference came just hours after the Australian of the year, sexual assault survivor Grace Tame, rebuked the prime minister for his language about the Higgins case.

Morrison has said that he spoke with his wife, Jenny, about the matter and that she had told him to consider the issue as the father of two daughters.

But Tame told the National Press Club in Canberra: “It shouldn’t take having children to have a conscience. And, actually, on top of that, having children doesn’t guarantee a conscience.”

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