With Attorney-General Christian Porter’s public declaration of innocence over historical rape allegations, one of Canberra’s worst-kept secrets was finally divulged to the broader public. Once the NSW Police investigation into the claims had been dropped because of “insufficient admissible evidence to proceed”, Mr Porter had little choice but to put his side of the story.
The woman alleged the rape took place in Sydney in January 1988 and made the claim to NSW Police in February last year, although there was no formal statement. The investigation was suspended in June when she took her own life. In an emotional press conference, Mr Porter denied the claims. “Nothing in the allegations that have been printed ever happened,” he said.
Attorney-General Christian Porter holds a press conference in Perth over rape allegations, Credit:Trevor Collens
While he confirmed that he knew the alleged victim at debating events when they were both in high school, and recalled some interactions between them, he had no explanation for why the woman who accused him might have done so.
These are highly unusual circumstances and there is no simple answer or solution. We know that many women harassed or assaulted feel they receive nothing like justice. We know, too, that attitudes towards women in a male-dominated culture have been too slow to change.
We don’t know what happened in this case, but there are principles that are essential to uphold, no matter how difficult. First, Mr Porter is correct to say that resigning from his job because of untested allegations would set a precedent we would regret. “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.”
As painful as the woman’s allegations are to read, they are unproven and can never be tested because of her death.
With no further recourse available in the courts, the woman’s friends, with some political support, are calling for an independent inquiry. They argue it could be similar to the one the High Court commissioned into allegations of sexual harassment against former High Court judge Dyson Heydon.
That idea has some appeal, but Mr Porter is correct that the two cases are fundamentally different. The High Court’s inquiry was into Mr Heydon’s alleged behaviour as a judge of the court – it was a workplace investigation.
This is not a workplace issue. The allegations are about events in January 1988 – 33 years ago, when Mr Porter was 17. It was long before he entered Parliament. And in the High Court inquiry, there were multiple women who could have given evidence about Mr Heydon’s behaviour. No doubt an inquiry into the allegations against Mr Porter would have access to the woman’s statements and the views of her friends, but it’s extremely unlikely that it could ever come to a finding as to his guilt or innocence on these very serious allegations.
To uphold these principles is essential but somehow hollow. Some women may say this is another case of women being let down through legal niceties. But they are not niceties – our legal system is far from perfect, but the presumption of innocence is sacred for all of us.
Why this feels so depressing is that the treatment of women in Australia – sexual harassment, rapes that go unreported, domestic violence – is often terrible and change is slow. Many women are beyond frustrated – they are angry.
At the National Press Club on Wednesday, the need for reform was expressed by Australian of the Year Grace Tame, who helped overturn Tasmanian laws that prevented her from speaking about her rape as a teenager by her 58-year-old teacher. “It is up to us as a community, as a country, to create a space, a national movement where survivors feel supported and free to share their truths,” she said. It was a powerful speech. Victims do need a space to speak out and all of us need to listen and respect their stories.
But as hard as it is to say, if an allegation is so serious that it would mean the deprivation of a person’s liberty or the destruction of their reputation and career, it needs to be tested. In this case, tragically, it cannot be.
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