A minister in the federal cabinet has been accused of committing rape. Since Friday evening, this fact has been public knowledge. It’s shocking and it’s impossible to unhear or unknow.
But which minister? His identity is not public knowledge. Yet.
In the meantime, the accusation has the potential to taint all 16 male federal cabinet ministers, although several are too young to have committed a crime alleged to have happened in 1988.
Worse, it taints Australia. The Prime Minister and his government can be accused of sheltering an alleged rapist. In the room where our best people are supposed to decide the greatest matters of state sits a man who is alleged to be one of our worst.
What sort of country allows this question to fester, unanswered? Not the sort of country that will have any credibility in the world on human rights or justice or women’s rights.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison spent the weekend silent and invisible, hoping that this story would just go away. The complainant, after talking to the NSW Police about her case in February last year, died by suicide in June.
But the fact that she is dead does not mean that the story will go away. It will not. He might not recognise it yet, but this is a crisis for Morrison’s prime ministership. It is untenable for him to try to duck it.
The alleged rapist’s identity is known throughout the politico-media complex. Inevitably, it will go public. It will be published in some corner of the internet where Australia’s defamation laws don’t reach, or a member of a State or Federal Parliament will name him under parliamentary privilege.
And when it does go public, it will become even more obvious why Morrison’s inaction is simply untenable.
None of this means that the accused man is guilty. He could well be innocent and in legal terms is entitled to the presumption of innocence and must be considered to be such.
The criminal justice system is irrelevant in these unusual circumstances.
The accused minister is entitled to his day in court, just as his accuser is entitled to be heard. But with his accuser dead, that is not going to happen.
Two of Morrison’s cabinet ministers appeared before the media on the weekend to talk about other subjects. But when Finance Minister Simon Birmingham and Health Minister Greg Hunt were asked about the rape claim, we heard the government’s response.
Both ministers said that it’s a matter for police investigation. They should be embarrassed to offer such a fraudulent excuse for inaction. You can’t be charged with rape in NSW unless there is a complainant. The complainant is dead. There can never be a charge under NSW law; there will never be a court case.
But they also spoke of referrals to the Australian Federal Police. Again, this is a furphy. Rape is a crime under state statute, not federal. Whatever they’re supposedly investigating, it won’t address the allegation of rape.
What to do? This a case where the best political play also just happens to be the right thing to do. The criminal justice system is irrelevant in these unusual circumstances. So the solution must be political.
The accused minister – you know who you are – should say that, while not conceding any guilt, he has become a distraction for the government and will stand aside from his post pending an inquiry.
At the same time, the Prime Minister should announce that an independent investigation by an eminent former judge will be convened to examine all available materials and decide whether the minister who has been accused is a fit and proper person to be a minister of the Crown.
This way, the accuser has her allegation investigated and the minister has a chance to clear his name. Morrison can’t be reproached for protecting an alleged rapist in his cabinet room. And Australia can’t be condemned for tolerating the possibility that it is allowing a person who has been alleged to have committed a depraved crime to shape its laws and policies at the highest level.
This is an unconventional solution, but not unprecedented. The High Court employed a similar measure to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against a retired judge, Dyson Heydon. Morrison should stop hiding and start leading.
National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line: 1800 737 732. Crisis support can also be found at Lifeline: (13 11 14 and lifeline.org.au) and beyondblue (1300 22 4636 and beyondblue.org.au).
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.