christian porter greg hunt peter dutton
(Images: AAP)

When Scott Morrison finally faced the media over historic rape allegations concerning a senior minister, his reaction was to obfuscate.

“It’s a matter for the Australian Federal Police,” he said. “We can’t have a situation where the mere making of an allegation is grounds for governments to stand people down simply on the basis of that.”

Morrison said he’d spoken to the alleged perpetrator who’d categorically denied the allegations (alleged perpetrators tend to do that). More concerningly, he’d heard “rumours” about the incident in October last year and decided to do nothing.

The “matter for police” statement gives the government and the minister a get-out-of-jail-free card. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) doesn’t have jurisdiction over this sexual assault. It says it’s liaising with relevant state authorities. NSW Police, which does have jurisdiction over the incident, suspended their investigation last year after the woman making the allegations died.

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And even if the investigation continued, her death would have made a potential prosecution nearly impossible.

Matter for police. Presumption of innocence. These are important concepts. But too often they’re tossed around by politicians as an excuse to dodge accountability.

Over the weekend, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said he “backed the police to do their job”.

Birmingham also said the minister needed to have “natural justice”, conflating an administrative law concept about conduct of government decision-makers with a criminal law concept.

Health Minister Greg Hunt also reiterated the argument that we should shut up and leave this one to the cops.

“The very strong advice of the police commissioner is that commentary upon such investigations is not an appropriate pathway,” he said.

Similarly, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg suggested the cabinet minister is “entitled to the presumption of innocence”.

But the presumption of innocence does not stop ministers from strongly condemning sexual assault, or from taking other action.

The High Court, for example, was able to investigate and act on allegations of sexual harassment against former justice Dyson Heydon before a police investigation.

Workplaces all over the world stand down employees over serious criminal allegations, even if they have not gone to trial. And the suggestion of police involvement does not forbid a minister from discussing a matter. Neither does suggesting that matter is for police to deal with.

These concepts haven’t just been used to avoid condemning sexual assault, but are a longstanding part of Coalition polispeak.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has cited the “presumption of innocence” as a rationale behind the government’s toothless model for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission.

But Porter’s own history highlights a serious double standard.

The attorney-general didn’t extend that same presumption of innocence to asylum seekers who could be brought to Australia for treatment under medivac laws in 2019, arguing they had “significant red flags”.

Similarly, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton — who used the smokescreen of a “sensitive operational matter” to justify his failure to tell Morrison about Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations — isn’t above speaking bluntly about people he doesn’t like.

Dutton accused female asylum seekers on Nauru trying to come to Australia for medical treatment of using rape and abortion as a ploy to get to the mainland. People in offshore detention centres are repeatedly described as “criminals”. Journalists raided by the AFP committed a crime, Dutton said, even before anybody was actually convicted.

Presumptions of innocence, police investigations, and the rule of law all matter. But they’re not a barrier to acting with empathy and humanity.