Attorney-General Christian Porter
Christian Porter (Image: AAP/Richard Wainwright)

Note: this story contains references to sexual assault.

Finally, Christian Porter has confirmed what everyone in politics and the media — and a great many other people as well — have known for days: he is the minister accused of a rape perpetrated over thirty years ago, an allegation he strongly denies and insists never happened.

In what is an unprecedented situation for an Australian government, the attorney-general, the first law officer of the land, is himself accused of one of the most serious breaches of the law imaginable.

What is a prime minister — not merely the leader of the country but the nexus of Australia’s system of government and its legislature and the man charged with addressing what is universally acknowledged is a toxic culture toward women in politics — to do?

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So far Morrison has done nothing beyond inquire of Christian Porter whether there is any substance to the allegations, and accepted his assurance that there is not. In doing so, Morrison did not even bother to show the documents he had been provided to Porter, who says he has never seen the document or the details of the allegations. This, it appears, was sufficient for the prime minister, who suggested the matter now rested entirely with police.

As Laura Tingle pointed out last night, that’s a far cry from Morrison’s own rhetoric about viewing rape allegations as a father would in relation to his daughters, deployed for political effect when responding to the Brittany Higgins revelations.

With NSW police entirely predictably, and very likely correctly, stating that there was no admissible evidence for them to proceed — without, Porter says, ever contacting him about the allegations — Morrison would evidently prefer that to be the end of the matter.

But it cannot be. The attorney-general, if innocent as he insists, will forever have a question mark over him, stained for the rest of his career — his life — with a false allegation of rape.

If the complainant’s statement is correct there can never be justice for her, or even posthumous acknowledgement of why her life was ruined, and one of the highest offices in the land is occupied by a monster. The criminal justice system cannot address the dilemma.

But governments have ways of addressing problems that can’t be addressed by existing systems. That’s what royal commissions and judicial inquiries are for.

When they’re not used for political purposes, such inquiries are based on the belief that a credible figure, independent of both the government and the sector and individuals concerned, with judicial powers to collect information and summon and question witnesses, can in effect break through the institutional, bureaucratic and legal barriers that prevent a problem from being addressed under normal circumstances.

Such an inquiry would give Porter an opportunity clear his name, to the extent possible, or to give belated acknowledgement of what happened to the complainant. It would also enable the government to move forward without a permanent stain over the cabinet and the crucial role of attorney-general, persisting as long as Porter remains a part of it. And it would enable the prime minister to say, finally, that he takes the abuse of women as seriously as he claims to.

But given the nature of his role, Porter cannot remain attorney-general while an inquiry proceeds. It may be more arguable if he were in a different role, but that office carries with it particular weight and responsibilities — ones Porter cannot credibly pretend to carry out while the issue is addressed.

The logic of an inquiry assumes that Scott Morrison has the public interest in mind — the nation’s need for confidence that the cabinet is a body made up of people of high integrity, that the attorney-general is not a criminal, and that the need for justice, to the extent possible in this awful situation, for both the minister and the complainant to be seen to be delivered as far as it can be.

Instead, Morrison — as with the Brittany Higgins revelations — has preferred to adopt the role of some disinterested bystander, whose day job is only tangentially related to issues such as an alleged rape occurring within the office of one of his ministers, the ensuing failure by a large number of parties including his own staff and ministers to tell him or his own office trying to smear the partner of the alleged victim.

And now, Morrison — incurious, untroubled, reluctant to be distracted — wants to play bystander on this, as well, as though the alleged presence of a rapist in cabinet is a matter that can be safely left to the good offices of the local police.

The tools are available to address this as well it can be given the circumstances. Whether the will to use them is available is another matter.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.