Porter speaks

Image of Attorney-General Christian Porter. Image via ABC News
Attorney-General Christian Porter. Image via ABC News

Attorney-General Christian Porter has come forward as the government minister accused of raping a 16-year-old in 1988, denying the allegations and refusing to step down. Porter said that “nothing in the allegations that have been printed ever happened”, that he had never seen the accuser’s statement and that the allegations had never been put to him for a response. Porter admitted having spoken to PM Scott Morrison about the allegations last week, but, remarkably, said he had not been given a copy of the letter detailing the allegations. The emotional attorney-general admitted he knew the woman in question for a short time in the late ’80s but insisted that they had never slept together. Porter said he would be taking a short period of leave to assess and improve his mental health, telling the press conference that he wasn’t sure if he was okay. The only sign of anger came during questioning, when it was pointed out to him that he could not disprove the allegation. “Of course I can’t,” he said.

Porter, who can never be cleared or found guilty of the rape, spoke at length about the importance of the rule of law, raising fears over what it would mean for “every child we raise” if people’s lives could be destroyed by accusations alone (never mind what it means for the woman whose life may or may not have been destroyed by a traumatic incident). Porter claimed there would be a dangerous new standard set if he were to resign, insisting that he was protecting the rule of law by not stepping down. Porter also relied on previous allegations against former Labor leader Bill Shorten, as conservatives have done all week, noting that he now understood what it was like for Shorten to have to do the “difficult thing” in waiting until the police investigation had come to an end before speaking out. The two cases are not the same, as much as attempts were made to refloat the Shorten allegations late last week, with Shorten’s accuser still alive and able to give her account.

Porter, who was previously investigated by Four Corners over his behaviour and attitudes towards women, has been hounded by long-running rumours of sexism and inappropriate behaviour, including making unwanted advances to women while in federal office and public drunkenness, as well as allegations from his university days and his time as a Crown prosecutor in Western Australia. In the extensive questioning in today’s press conference, Porter was asked if he could be the subject of similar allegations to the one at hand or if he had ever asked someone to sign a non-disclosure agreement, both of which he rejected. He said he didn’t remember much of the debating championship week in question (other than “bowls of prawns”), but said he would surely have remembered a disturbing incident like the one being alleged in a trove of diary entries and statements.

The Morrison government reportedly hopes this afternoon’s statement will mark the “end of the matter”, and Porter clearly wants that to be so, but it’s almost certainly not. Four Corners journalist Louise Milligan, who broke the story of the letter from the deceased woman’s friends, hinted on Twitter late last night that she has more, saying that NSW Police was “very interested to know if I knew of other complainants”. “Not in your jurisdiction,” she replied. Porter will want to tread carefully here, and not make any claims that can be easily disproved by an award-winning investigative reporter on a mission.

In unfortunate timing for Porter and the government, sexual abuse survivor and Australian of the Year Grace Tame earlier today addressed the National Press Club, in a brave and eloquent speech that received a standing ovation and left many in the room close to tears. Tame once again recounted her story of being groomed and abused by her teacher as a teen, but she also took the opportunity to warn against commodifying victims’ pain, reminding journalists that while “listening to survivors is one thing, expecting people to relive their trauma on your terms, without our consent, without prior warning, is another.” Tame said that abuse of power and cover-up culture was “not unique to parliament” but was rife in Australian society at large.

While journalists were asked to avoid mentioning specifics of the recent allegations dominating headlines, many questions put to Tame still referred to them obliquely, along with effusive praise for Tame herself. The Australian of the Year, who had recently been honoured by the prime minister, was asked what she thought of his recent “as a father” comments. “It shouldn’t take having children to have a conscience,” she said. “And, actually, on top of that, having children doesn’t guarantee a conscience,” she added, to a round of applause. She said the past few weeks had made her hopeful, saying that “people finding the courage to speak out” was “empowering”, but that she has not been surprised by some of the unhelpful dialogue. Barrister Kathleen Foley – who appeared on Four Corners’ “Canberra bubble” episode, calling Porter “deeply sexist” and a “misogynist” based on her time at university with him – also joined the conversation today, writing in the AFR that Morrison’s response to the allegations had been “nothing short of insulting”, suggesting he “take a leaf out of Tame’s book, out of Brittany Higgins’ book, and end his silence”.

Tame noted that a lot of resources were being put into responding to child sexual abuse, rather than preventing it. One might also note that irony of there being so much attention paid to the issue of child abuse by this government, which has spent the past five days refusing to address or look into allegations of a rape of a 16-year-old by someone within its own ranks. The government further highlighted this dichotomy today, with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton helping launch the AFP’s new anti-child abuse initiative, appealing to the community for help in identifying victims of online sexual abuse.

The Australian was enthusiastic in reporting the new initiative this morning (as it is with any child sex abuse-preventing initiative), but it too has become increasingly keen to shut down conversation about one very specific instance of sexual abuse. The Murdoch media, despite kicking off the conversation that brought about the Porter allegations with its reporting on Brittany Higgins’s rape allegation, has now gone hard in the attorney-general’s defence, dedicating its opinion pages to commentary on why Porter should be allowed to deny this and move on. National editor Dennis Shanahan argued that the precedent set by the Bill Shorten allegations, where charges were also not laid due to insufficient evidence, meant that the Coalition minister needed to be allowed to move on too – ignoring the very different circumstances here – while Paul Kelly insists that a rape trial by media is a threat to justice. “So far, only one side of this story is being propagated, based on documents prepared by the victim and her supporters,” wrote Kelly.

Now that Porter has come forward to deny the allegations, both sides of the story have been “propagated”, as Kelly put it. But in this case of “she said, he said” (as Dutton would put it), only one person is able to address the contested allegations directly, because “she” can no longer say anything. The deceased accuser, who killed herself last year, has now had her story refuted, but cannot refute his in return, and can speak only through letters and friends. With Porter’s denial getting such a public hearing, it’s more important than ever that we also hear what she – and they – has to say.

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