“My guess is that if I were to resign and that set a new standard, there wouldn’t be much need for an attorney general anyway, because there would be no rule of law left to protect in this country,” said attorney general Christian Porter at a Perth media conference on 3 March.
The nation’s chief lawmaker made these comments in a speech, in which he publicly named himself as the minister accused in a recently supplied anonymous document detailing an alleged rape that happened 33 years ago, and he went on to categorically deny the claim.
In the above statement, Porter asserts that his standing down or aside from the position of AG in response would indicate that the “public trial by media” he’s evidently been subjected to had won, and, in that sense, could see a weakening in the authority of the law.
Porter’s words imply that he’s duty bound to continue in office to ensure the law remains stable for all of us.
Yet, his reasoning doesn’t ring true when you consider the flipside: that he continues in the nation’s foremost law role with an unexplained rape accusation hanging over his head.
The done and dusted PM
The rape claim was first made to NSW police in February last year. The woman who made the claim met with detectives at least five times over a 3 month period. However, on 24 June of that year, she took her own life.
The NSW Police Force explained in a statement that on the day prior to her death, the woman sent an email explaining that she no longer wished to proceed with the matter that is said to have occurred in 1988 during a debating trip in Sydney, when Porter was 17 and she was 16.
NSW police had set up a taskforce to investigate the matter, but has since closed the case, as the woman hadn’t provided an admissible statement, meaning there isn’t enough evidence to proceed with a criminal prosecution.
Scott Morrison said last Thursday there will be no independent investigation of the allegations, as he repeatedly implied it would undermine the rule of law. He said that he could only base his judgement on the police opinion. This is because he hadn’t even bothered to read the dossier sent to him outlining the claim.
“The rule of law is essential for liberal democracies. And we weaken it at our great peril,” the PM told reporters. “We must reflect on that principle because it is that principle that undergirds our democracy itself: the presumption of innocence”.
Can’t be shrugged off
The presumption that a person is innocent and unless he or she is proven to be guilty in a court of law is one of the key principles underpinning the criminal justice system. In this state, the presumption has been under threat in recent years, as Morrison’s state counterparts have passed numerous laws eroding it.
But no one is suggesting that Porter be subjected to “trial by media”, and the public is aware that there isn’t enough evidence for NSW police to move forward with an investigation.
Indeed, an independent inquiry wouldn’t run as a prosecution against Mr Porter.
Rather, such an inquiry would be responsible for investigating the rape claim, as well as other allegations of inappropriate conduct levelled against the most powerful lawyer in the nation. Those carrying out the inquiry would then deliver findings and perhaps make recommendations. The inquiry members wouldn’t be expected to press charges or provide a verdict, nor would they have the power to do so.
The alternative, though, is to leave a man – whose reputation regarding women has already come under question – in the position that exemplifies the rule of law, while a substantial claim levelled against him, which led to police to establish a taskforce, hovers unexplained above him.
To leave Porter in his position with the allegations that have already eroded his reputation untested, and without any formal resolution, is not only going to undermine the rule of law, but it will also erode the position of attorney general and the public’s already damaged trust in government.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.