Note: this article discusses suicide and sexual assault.
There are no good ways out of the situation Australian federal politics, and the political class, now find itself in. Only bad ones, and less bad ones.
A cabinet minister is accused of rape in 1988, by a woman who took her own life last year, ending decades of misery and illness. The relevant documents have been known to some media outlets for differing periods of time, but they became known more widely when they were sent to a number of political figures and the Australian Federal Police (AFP).
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The AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw last week took the unusual step of writing to the prime minister to rebuke the failure of government ministers, staff and other figures to report the rape of Brittany Higgins, who says she was pressured to not report her alleged rape out of fear of losing her job. Any politician receiving any allegation of rape was therefore placed on notice of the need to forward them immediately to police.
Thus the government, through its odious mishandling of Brittany Higgins, created the circumstances that led to the airing of allegations against one of its own — a just reward for always treating Higgins as a political problem to be dealt with rather than an alleged rape survivor and victim of a deeply toxic culture.
Police can’t resolve the accusation. There is no prospect of a conviction, but no way of disproving the allegations either. The minister may be entirely innocent, but smeared forever with the tag of rapist. He may be guilty, not merely of rape but of destroying a life, and will never be punished.
But this is public office. The highest and most important body in the country, the cabinet in which decisions affecting every Australian are made. Now it is tainted, and everything it has done has been tainted for as long as the relevant minister has been sitting at the cabinet table.
How can any government credibly speak about the status of women, safety, law and order, or violence, when an accused rapist was a decision-maker? What of the security implications for a minister with a rape allegation hanging over him, potentially exposing him to blackmail? What are leaders of other countries to think when they meet an Australian minister, knowing he may be a rapist?
As long as the alleged perpetrator remains unnamed and in cabinet, a cloud hangs over everything the government does.
The least worst option is for the minister to out himself — to the public, if not to the media and his colleagues, all of whom already know his identity — and agree to cooperate with a police inquiry or any inquiry the prime minister may decide to establish. He must do so knowing that, even if he is innocent, any inquiry will not fully resolve the matter, only conclude, based on the complaint and any corroborating evidence, about the possibility of a successful prosecution.
The alternative is that the entire government remains tainted.
The Labor MP that is subject to a rape allegation referred to police by Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson should do exactly the same if they are a frontbencher — assuming that it is a frontbencher, and assuming it is not an allegation that police have already examined and dismissed.
To maintain a veil of secrecy over the identity of the cabinet minister, in the hope that the matter will simply disappear, is to leave him a hostage to both his political colleagues and the tender mercies of social media. Labor will never reveal his identity, but there’s no restraint on the crossbench using parliamentary privilege to publish the complaint in full. Nor, potentially, internal party enemies. Nor is there anything to stop a foreign website or social media user publishing his identity.
Again, the least worse option is to control the revelation of the minister’s identity, rather than leave it to others.
What won’t be fixed, no matter what tactics are employed, and even with the best outcome, is the stench around the Morrison government. It’s the product of a deep cynicism, of corruption, of misogyny, of partisanship at all costs, and of constant scandals and sleaze. It will go down as Australia’s grubbiest government.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.