Australia’s attorney-general has denied an allegation that he raped a woman 33 years ago in a case that has unleashed a political firestorm over the treatment of women in politics and plunged the government further into crisis.
Christian Porter, 50, said on Wednesday the alleged incident with a woman he met at a debating event when she was a teenager never happened. The woman registered a complaint with police last year but subsequently died by suicide, prompting police to close their investigation this week, citing insufficient evidence.
“I can say categorically that what has been put in various forms in allegations, simply did not happen,” said Porter, as he fought back tears during a televised press conference.
The government has resisted calls by the opposition Green party and women’s rights groups to establish an independent investigation into the allegations, saying it was a matter for police. It has also refused to temporarily stand down Porter.
The attorney-general told reporters he would not resign, saying this would set a standard in how allegations were dealt with in politics.
The allegation against Porter came weeks after Brittany Higgins, an adviser to the ruling Liberal party, alleged she was raped last year by a colleague in the parliamentary office of the minister of defence. Higgins reported the incident to police but said she did not initially pursue the complaint because she felt her job was “on the line”, as the alleged rape took place shortly before the 2019 election.
The defence minister took medical leave in the wake of the crisis. The rape allegation has raised questions about Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s leadership at a moment when the government’s majority has been cut to a single seat after a Liberal party MP defected last month.
Critics have seized on Morrison’s statement that he did not know about the alleged rape until Higgins made a public statement last month even though several members of his staff were aware of the alleged incident last year.
Morrison said he only found out about the specific allegations against Porter last Wednesday, although he had heard “rumours” following questions submitted by a journalist.
The rape allegations were the latest examples of what critics have claimed is a toxic political culture that regularly exposes young, female staff to inappropriate behaviour in a male-dominated workplace with little threat of repercussions.
Sarah Maddison, politics professor at the University of Melbourne, said it was extraordinary that Porter had not stood aside and the government refused to order an independent inquiry.
“This is the attorney-general, for goodness sake. The prime minister is seeking to downplay and minimise the extraordinary nature of these allegations and the previous allegations of a rape down the hall from his parliamentary office,” she said. “This reflects a deep misogyny that infects our politics.”
Ian McAllister, professor of politics at Australian National University, said the timing was damaging for the Morrison administration following a previous scandal involving the conduct of government politicians towards women.
“Although the coalition government is more than a year away from a general election, it has been losing votes among women for more than a decade,” he said. “The current events will not reverse that disadvantage and may well cause it to increase.”