News

As Christian Porter names himself as the cabinet minister accused of rape, and denies the allegation, his office walks back the attorney-general’s claim that the last time he saw his accuser was in January 1988. By Karen Middleton.

Porter denial fails to end calls for an independent inquiry

Australia’s attorney-general, Christian Porter, leaves a press conference in Perth this week.
Credit: Stefan Gosatti / AFP

Two weeks before the 2019 federal election, at a televised Sky News leaders’ debate, the first question from the audience was about rape. Fearing it would revisit specific historical allegations against then opposition leader Bill Shorten, the Labor campaign team braced.

Shorten had publicly denied the allegations, which were still swirling on social media. Police had interviewed him at his own instigation, and many others, but determined there was insufficient admissible evidence to prosecute.

When Attorney-General Christian Porter this week declared himself the cabinet minister accused of raping a 16-year-old girl in 1988 when he was 17 – insisting it “never happened” – he likened himself to Shorten, even expressing solidarity.

“I make no criticism of the former opposition leader – I now understand what he went through,” Porter told journalists on Wednesday, protesting his innocence before taking two weeks’ mental-health leave.

This was not the Coalition’s attitude to the Shorten allegations when fighting the 2019 election campaign.

Despite police closing their investigation, the Coalition considered the allegations matters of character to be weaponised.

Two years on, the issue of character in relation to historical rape allegations is no longer one for sotto voce conversations. It is being discussed at full volume.

Debate about sexual violence in the political domain has reached gale-force. It now engulfs the first law officer of the land and, indeed, the whole government. The politics have turned dramatically.

Although the question at the Sky News forum back in May 2019 turned out to be a general one about chronic underreporting of rape, Shorten’s campaign team believed it was no coincidence.

The next day, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about his next-term agenda and brought the conversation back, unprompted, to rape.

“We had one of the early questions on rape and women being raped and the lack of reporting,” Morrison said of the previous night’s debate. “One of the things that often happens with that is they’re not believed, and their stories are not believed. It’s important that their stories are believed and that they know that if they come forward, their stories will be believed.

“As I said, my father was a police officer and you can only pursue the crimes when they’re reported often, so the women in those circumstances, I think should have a greater sense of confidence that if they tell their stories, they’ll be believed.”

We now know this statement came six weeks after the alleged rape of 24-year-old government staffer Brittany Higgins by a more senior colleague on a couch in a minister’s office in Parliament House. While not disclosed publicly at the time, the accusation has sharply diverted the course of national politics in 2021.

Morrison insists he was unaware of Higgins’ allegation in 2019, and remained so until February 15 this year. Given prime ministerial protocols, Morrison’s hands-on approach and the then proximity to an election, his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, argues that is “not credible”.

In the wake of Brittany Higgins’ disclosure, the allegation against Porter, which had been circulating as political rumour for months, exploded into the public domain.

This was catalysed by an anonymous letter, seen by The Saturday Paper, which was sent, along with a 30-page dossier, to the prime minister and several other parliamentarians last week, reportedly by one or more of the woman’s friends.

In it they write that Higgins’ allegations “remind us of the need to do more to protect women” and that rape “is not a partisan issue”.

The documents outline how the Adelaide woman had approached the New South Wales Police Force in February last year, alleging Porter raped her during a debating championship in Sydney in January 1988, when she was 16.

There was contact five more times, but the Covid-19 pandemic delayed police plans to travel to Adelaide to interview her last March. Two months later, the woman – who had told many people her story and struggled with her mental health – contacted police again saying she no longer wished to proceed. Within 24 hours, she had taken her own life.

ABC TV’s Louise Milligan reported the dossier and its accusations on February 26, describing the alleged perpetrator only as “a cabinet minister”.

After days of speculation about his identity – and cabinet colleagues’ growing concern they were suspected – Porter identified himself on Wednesday.

He denied the allegations and said he was neither resigning nor standing aside.

“If I stand down from my position as attorney-general because of an allegation of something that simply did not happen, then any person in Australia can lose their career, their job, their life’s work, based on an accusation that appears in print,” he said.

He also suggested a non-judicial inquiry would undermine the rule of law.

“What would that inquiry ask me to do? To disprove something that didn’t happen 33 years ago?” He insisted that he and the woman were not close, and that he had not seen her since 1988. But the woman’s friends dispute Porter’s version.

The Saturday Paper understands they have evidence suggesting she saw him at least twice more – in Sydney in 1991 and Perth in 1994. Porter’s spokesman said the minister’s comments on Wednesday had been “to the best of his recollection” but that it was “not impossible” that there had been contact with the woman in the 1990s and he was “not ... disputing that possibility”.

Labor, the Greens, the woman’s lawyer, Michael Bradley, and some other members of the legal community are now calling for an independent inquiry. On Thursday, the woman’s family endorsed this call.

“There needs to be an inquiry to avoid the very trial by media that Mr Porter so decries,” Adelaide Writers’ Week director Jo Dyer, a friend of the woman, tells The Saturday Paper. “Without it, online speculation and media investigation will fill the void.”

Dyer says it should be possible to hold something similar to the inquiry into sexual harassment allegations against former High Court judge Dyson Heydon. The chief justice, she says, “didn’t have the kind of qualms about a reversal of the onus of proof that Mr Porter [expressed]”.

She says this is a special case, due to Porter’s position as the person who appoints High Court judges and other judicial officers.

“What we’re talking about is whether or not he is of sufficient character to hold the office of attorney-general, to sit around the cabinet table,” she says. “And that is a moral and an ethical standard, not a criminal and legal one … Because [my friend] lost her fight with the trauma – that she alleged and believed deeply was caused by the attack in the first place – the allegations can’t be allowed to die with her,” Dyer says.

NSW Police confirmed this week that they took legal advice after the woman died and have now closed their investigation. They did so without interviewing Porter, which they say could have been prejudicial without a sworn statement from the complainant. They also didn’t interview any of the woman’s friends.

The anonymous letter names 13 friends and provides their contact details. Among them are the woman’s six teammates from the Australian schools debating teams in 1987 and 1988, who the letter says all believed her story and “are in possession of additional corroborative evidence” related to the alleged rape. It appears police did not obtain or clarify that evidence before closing the case. But the coroner in South Australia has asked SA Police for more information and is not ruling out a coronial inquiry.

Morrison was asked on Monday if he had heard anything of the allegation before last week.

“No, not really of any substance,” he said. Pressed, he said he had heard “rumours” and that “journalists were asking questions about a member” but that he didn’t know who and he didn’t inquire.

The prime minister is now having to defend two of his most senior ministers, both on medical leave.

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds remains under pressure over the handling of Higgins’ alleged rape, which occurred in Reynolds’ office. Reynolds’ political position worsened after it was confirmed on Thursday that she had described Higgins in front of staff recently as a “lying cow”. Reynolds did not deny the comments, saying in a statement that she never questioned Higgins’ account of the alleged incident but had remarked on suggestions she had not received adequate support. Morrison rebuked her, calling the comments “offensive”.

Some of Reynolds’ senior colleagues believe she cannot continue as Defence minister. Thus far, Morrison is publicly defending both Reynolds and Porter. But the prime minister’s own tone about those alleging rape appears to have changed significantly, too. In relation to Porter, he now says simply: case closed.

“There are no matters that require my immediate attention,” he said. Politically, though, it is requiring a great deal.

Morrison faces serious criticism for not being more curious about the woman’s allegations against his attorney-general.

The prime minister insists that while his staff have read the anonymous letter – which clearly says the accompanying dossier should be read by “the named recipient only” – he has not. Jo Dyer says she finds this, and Morrison’s suggestion he has no further role, “extraordinary”.

“So … women who come forward with stories of sexual abuse should be believed,” Dyer says. “But at the same time, he’s stating that the denial of allegations of a crime by an alleged perpetrator is the end of the matter. [This] cannot be the standard that we adopt, particularly when the alleged perpetrator is the first law officer of the country.”

Labor’s senate leader, Penny Wong, who also received the letter, along with Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, says Morrison is failing in his duty.

“I don’t think you take responsibility by not reading allegations about a cabinet minister which are sent to you,” she told ABC Radio National.

Morrison insists that the letter did not arrive until Friday of last week. Wong and Hanson-Young received it two days earlier, Wednesday February 24, as did two other MPs: Labor’s Daniel Mulino, who is among the woman’s long-time friends, and Liberal Celia Hammond, appointed by Morrison to undertake an internal cultural review in the wake of Higgins’ allegation.

Those other recipients forwarded the dossier to Morrison on February 24 and it was also sent to police. That night, Morrison spoke to Porter, who “categorically” denied the allegations.

He also spoke to Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw.

Apparently trying to stop the issue reaching the media, Morrison asked Kershaw to remind MPs and senators of their responsibilities. Kershaw wrote to Morrison urging all parliamentarians receiving any criminal allegations to contact police “without delay” and warning that passing them to others, including the media, “risks prejudicing any subsequent police investigation”.

A few hours later, Louise Milligan, whose November Four Corners report titled “Inside the Canberra Bubble” included references to Porter’s allegedly crude behaviour with women at university, broke the cabinet minister story.

On Monday, Morrison insisted he could not comment further on the matter involving the cabinet minister as it was with the AFP. However, Kershaw confirmed the AFP had no jurisdiction and had been liaising with NSW Police.

On Tuesday, NSW Police issued a statement, confirming Strike Force Wyndarra had been established in February 2020 to examine the woman’s allegations but that she had died before making a sworn statement.

“Following the woman’s death, NSW Police came into possession of a personal document purportedly made by the woman previously,” the police statement said. “NSW Police have since sought legal advice in relation to these matters. Based on information provided … there is insufficient admissible evidence to proceed. As such, NSW Police Force has determined the matter is now closed.”

Porter and Morrison say that is where it should end. But the rape allegations have lit a touchpaper in the community.

Speaking at the National Press Club this week, Australian of the Year and sexual abuse survivor Grace Tame criticised Morrison for suggesting he only grasped Brittany Higgins’ situation by consulting wife Jenny, who told him to think of their daughters.

“It shouldn’t take having children to have a conscience,” Tame said. “And on top of that, having children doesn’t guarantee a conscience.”

Morrison is rejecting calls for an inquiry but won’t say if he believes Porter.

“My judgement is based on the report of the police,” Morrison said on Thursday. “They are the competent and authorised authorities to make the judgements about any such allegations and they have made their conclusions. And as people have said in similar occasions in the past, that’s where the matter rests … That’s where the rule of law completes its process.”

The political process, however, is far from done.

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 6, 2021 as "Porter denial fails to end calls for an independent inquiry".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.