Australia PM backs Attorney-General accused of rape

Attorney-General Christian Porter on Wednesday tearfully denied raping a 16-year-old fellow student in 1988. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY - Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison is facing growing pressure over his handling of rape allegations against a senior Cabinet member after he rejected demands for an independent inquiry into the case.

As the family of the alleged victim joined calls for an inquiry, Mr Morrison insisted on Thursday (March 4) that further inquiries into the alleged rape by Attorney-General Christian Porter were unnecessary because police have closed their investigation.

He said Mr Porter should be presumed innocent and that the allegations should be handled by police rather than "the mob process".

"We run the rule of law based on police," he said. "We have to be very careful - very careful - even in traumatic and sensitive issues like this, that we don't fundamentally undermine that principle."

But the police were effectively unable to investigate the alleged rape because the woman who made the complaint took her own life and had not provided a full statement.

Police said on Thursday that the alleged victim informed them last June that she no longer wanted to proceed, citing medical and personal reasons. A day after informing police, the 49-year-old woman took her own life.

Mr Porter, 50, has strenuously denied the alleged rape, which was said to have occurred in 1988, when he was 17 and the woman was 16. The alleged crime occurred while they were members of a four-person team that attended a high school debating tournament at Sydney University.

"The things that are claimed to have happened did not happen," he told reporters on Wednesday.

Mr Porter has refused to resign or stand aside, but has taken leave to take care of his mental health.

The saga has dominated media headlines in Australia. It follows a series of claims of sexual harassment and assault involving political advisors that have led to growing public debate about the treatment of women in politics and the handling of allegations against MPs and advisors.

The political crisis worsened for Mr Morrison on Thursday after it was reported that Defence Minister Linda Reynolds described another alleged rape victim as a "lying cow".

The woman, Ms Brittany Higgins, has said she was raped in 2019 while working as a ministerial advisor to Ms Reynolds by a fellow ministerial advisor. Ms Higgins demanded a public apology from Ms Reynolds over her remarks.

Meantime, the accusations against Mr Porter has prompted calls for Mr Morrison to hold an independent inquiry, possibly by a retired judge.

The family of the woman, who has not been named, on Thursday voiced support for an inquiry. They said in a statement that they "continue to experience considerable grief arising from their loss".

They support "any inquiry which could potentially shed light on the circumstances surrounding the deceased's passing".

The Labor opposition party also urged Mr Morrison to hold an inquiry.

"It's time for the prime minister to give both himself and Australians confidence that Mr Porter is a fit and proper person to hold the office of attorney-general," said Labor leader Anthony Albanese.

Mr Morrison acknowledged that it must be "a harrowing time" for the alleged victim's friends and family", but said that police were the proper authority to evaluate the allegations. "That's where the matter rests," he said.

But the State Coroner in South Australia, the state where the woman died, has signalled that a coronial inquest into her suicide could still be held pending further investigations by police and the coroner's office.

Political commentator Peter Hartcher said on Thursday that Mr Morrison should call an independent inquiry into whether Mr Porter was fit to hold such high office in the face of such a grave accusation. He said the Government was "hiding" behind the police inquiry, which had inevitably concluded that it lacked sufficient evidence to proceed with an investigation.

"(An inquiry) is the only way to restore Porter's reputation, to recover public confidence in Morrison's government, to repair Australia's credibility in the world," he wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald.

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