The case of Christian Porter is a difficult one. He is the Commonwealth’s Attorney-General, and it is said that thirty or so years ago, when he was seventeen, he raped a sixteen–year old girl who was also part of a debating team. The girl killed herself many years later. She did report all this much later to the NSW police, who took no action, partly because the alleged rape happened a long time ago, partly because she made no sworn statement, and partly because of her assumed mental condition at the time of the police interviews. It was not long after those interviews that she took her own life. Mr Porter has consistently and vehemently denied that any such sexual assault took place. Two issues are important. The first is whether or not anything of that kind occurred, and what should be done about it now. The second is what the Attorney-General should do about it, perhaps more — what should the Prime Minister and his colleagues do about it.
As to the first issue, we will never know the truth. There are far too many unknowns, and no way of resolving them. Was there intercourse at all? If there were, did it have any element of consent, afterwards retracted? Was it plain straightforward penetration against the will of the girl? Why did she not take action as soon as practical after the event? Why did she wait for a couple of decades and more to take her life? What was her mental condition when she made her statements to the police? And so on. There is no judicial vehicle that can be used to sort out these questions and arrive at a finding. At least, no ordinarily available vehicle, like a court. But the taking of a life, and the prominence of the alleged rapist, mean that the case cannot just be dismissed out of hand.
The Attorney-General put forward an interesting, indeed provocative, statement in his defence, as to his decision not to resign, which was that if he resigned, given the impossibility of any way of resolving his innocence, then anyone in a position like his could be stripped from office without the ordinary response of innocence presumed before trial. I was struck by that, and what follows are my thoughts on it. In the first place I think it is important to say that women are overwhelmingly the victims in all sexual assault events and their chances of being believed in court are small. So often it is a case of one’s word against the other’s, no witnesses, some circumstantial suggestion that either or both were intoxicated or other information of a similar kind. Women are reluctant to go to court unless they have strong evidence in their favour.
In the present case the girl’s actions and motives are important if her allegations are to be believed. It appears that she was reluctant to come forward later because of the prominence of Mr Porter, and partly because she was drunk at the time, on her own admission. In pursuing a legal action she he might be removing him permanently from public life. Indeed, he has been prominent in politics from the beginning, having served in both the Western Australian and Federal Parliaments since 2008. His family is also prominent. He has been accused in the past for inappropriate cuddling with another woman, which he also denied. The woman in the alleged rape case made a long statement to her solicitor in 2019, and it was after that statement she took her life.
It’s a mess, in terms of evidence, isn’t it. Was the woman’s mental health always a problem? We don’t know. Other members of the debating team supported her allegation. On what basis? It’s not my job to come out with a judicial finding of any kind, and it’s no one else’s formal responsibility either. So we now move to the second issue: what should Mr Porter do? What he has done is to remove himself to the medical sphere, to deal with stress, which seems to be the new way of dealing with ‘issues’, at least in the short term. The Prime Minister has said, blandly, that Mr Porter has not advised him about he will return to his duties as Attorney-General.
Well, I have a suggestion, which is that Mr Porter should ask the PM for a return to a different set of Ministerial responsibilities for the moment. As he has shown already, there is no problem with the matter he raised earlier: he is still waiting for the case to blow over, and someone else (Michaelia Cash) is doing the A-G’s job. Since her primary responsibility is industrial relations, the PM plainly expects her acting job to be a short one. And my guess is that he expects Mr Porter to deal with his ‘stress issues’ quickly too.
My suggestion has a useful side for Mr Porter. While he continues to deny that any of this happened, the truth of the main issue has not been resolved, and can’t be, he remains something of a liability to his leader and his colleagues while the uncertainty about fact is part of the daily news feed. The Prime Minister can test the waters: give him a middling senior role, put someone else into the A-G slot, and carry on regardless. Unless a new allegation turns up, and one supported in a robust way, the issue will blow over sooner or later. Wait until mid-year, and then bring him back. I have no idea what the party-room feeling is, and that will be important.
It would have a useful side for the PM as well. There is increasing talk about an end-of-year election, and the Prime Minister needs to scrub some of the irritating black marks off the table. There has been a lot of criticism about sexual misconduct in Federal Parliament, and Mr Porter’s case is the most prominent recent example. It is time for the Coalition to do good things rather than ignore bad ones, and getting rid of sexual misconduct, real and alleged, is a good way to start.
Finally, there is no doubt that women are drawn to big, powerful alpha men. I saw this first in the old Parliament House, when Gough Whitlam, then Prime Minister, would follow his trio of attractive young women through King’s Hall. They were his personal staff, highly competent, all of them. Some years later Ian Sinclair had his own trio of attractive young women, all of them highly competent. I suggest nothing whatsoever about inappropriate relationships, only that the hothouse environment of Parliament makes male/female relationships of all kinds both understandable and highly visible.