PERTH (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Australia's attorney-general Christian Porter on Wednesday (March 3) outed himself as the unnamed Cabinet minister accused of raping a 16-year-old girl, denying the decades-old allegation and trying to draw a line under a crisis that has consumed the country's conservative government.
After a week of speculation that has dominated Australian politics, Mr Porter - the government's top lawyer and a former prosecutor - denied wrongdoing, saying "the allegations never happened" and insisted he would not step down.
But Mr Porter, 50, said he would take medical leave to deal with the strain caused by the allegations.
Police on Tuesday said they would not be pursuing the case due to insufficient admissible evidence.
The accuser committed suicide last June after deciding not to make a formal statement to police, and details of the allegations only became public at the weekend after her friends sent documents to two Australian lawmakers and the prime minister's office.
“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,” Mr Porter said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under pressure to hold an inquiry into the matter, amid wider concerns about a toxic culture in Australia’s parliament.
Female lawmakers have complained for years about a male-dominated and dis-empowering culture in the national capital, Canberra.
Concerns were magnified last month when former government media adviser Brittany Higgins said she was raped in 2019 by a fellow staffer in a minister’s office.
The government’s handling of the Higgins case has raised questions about Mr Morrison’s judgment on women’s issues. He’s insisted insisted the 1988 rape allegation is a matter best dealt with by police and that people are entitled to a presumption of innocence.
“We can’t have a situation where the mere making of an allegation and that being publicized through the media is grounds for, you know, governments to stand people down,” Mr Morrison told reporters on Monday.
While the prime minister has declined to launch an independent inquiry into the 1988 case, he has ordered a probe into workplace culture at Parliament House following the Higgins allegations.
Mr Morrison said he realized the gravity of that matter after discussing the issue with his wife, who asked him to consider the issue as a father of two girls.
Despite priding itself on being among the first countries to give women the right to vote and stand as candidates, Australia has plummeted to 50th in global rankings for representation of women in parliament from 15th in 1999.
Sixteen of Mr Morrison’s 22-member Cabinet are men.
Mr Porter, 50, had not been publicly identified until his statement Wednesday. From Perth, he served for five years in Western Australia’s parliament before winning a federal seat in 2013, and has also been the government’s leader in the lower house.
He was one of the subjects of an Australian Broadcasting Corp. documentary broadcast in November that investigated allegations of sexism and inappropriate behavior by government lawmakers.
In the programme, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he had warned the Attorney-General about public behaviour with a young female staff member.
An emotional Mr Porter told reporters that he did not sleep with the woman in 1988. He said the prime minister had given him his full backing to remain in Cabinet.
He will take about two weeks leave “for my own sanity,” he said.
The mistreatment of women in parliament made global headlines in 2012 when Australia’s first female prime minister Julia Gillard accused opposition leader Tony Abbott of misogyny.
More recently, former foreign minister Julie Bishop has blasted behavior by lawmakers that wouldn’t be “tolerated in any other workplaces across Australia.”
Another lawmaker, Julia Banks, said bullying had driven her to quit parliament, while a former senator was ordered to pay Senator Sarah Hanson-Young A$120,000 (S$125,000) in damages for a series of statements that she said had amounted to sexual discrimination.
A Newspoll published in The Australian last week showed that while Morrison enjoys strong personal approval ratings after his handling of the pandemic and stimulus injections to buffer the economy, his ruling government remains deadlocked with the Labor opposition ahead of an election due to be held by May 2022.