The attorney-general has been accused of rape, and the government is doing its best to make sure it has no material impact on the functioning of Australian politics whatsoever. The message is unmistakable: the denials of powerful men should and will be believed. And when such denials are made, powerful friends will come to the defence of powerful men.
This is the case even when the alleged victim is well connected. Porter’s accuser moved in the same privileged social circles. Her friends and advocates are eminent and influential. But even with all this going for her, the government has stonewalled for weeks.
Despite the tears, the message of Porter’s well-rehearsed press conference was that it is he who is the victim in this situation, and he who is doing us a favour by remaining attorney-general. To stand aside, apparently, would be to trash the rule of law, with disastrous ramifications, including but not limited to the end of civilisation as we know it.
This might have been less contemptible had Porter not built his career on trashing the rule of law and due process for some of society’s most vulnerable. It didn’t seem to concern him, for example, when he was overseeing the government’s unlawful robodebt scheme during his time as social services minister. This racket was based on the government selecting and deeming certain Centrelink recipients guilty of defrauding the government unless they could prove their innocence.
Or when he punitively refused to renew the appointment of a long-time Administrative Appeals Tribunal member, Terry Carney, who made the adverse decision against the government on the robodebt scheme.
Or Porter’s politically motivated pursuit of Bernard Collaery, the lawyer for whistleblower Witness K, whose career has been ruined by the secret trial the attorney-general has subjected him to. Only last month, the trial judge had cause to comment on Porter’s “disturbing” attempt to block Collaery’s choice of barrister. Or when the government reversed the presumption of innocence for dual citizens accused of terror offences and carried out sensational raids on Muslims’ homes, which implied guilt but resulted in no charges. Porter has backed Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s attempt to circumvent the High Court’s ruling against the use of secret evidence in cases of visa and citizenship cancellation.
The attorney-general had no problem with these abuses of state power, despite numerous legal experts and the Australian Human Rights Commission sounding the alarm about fairness and the threat to natural justice.
The rule of law and due process are of course vitally important. Without them, there is little protection for citizens against the arbitrary exercise of power by the state and governments. The presumption of innocence, which puts the onus on the state to prove charges against those accused, is one such protection.
But it is against arbitrary imprisonment that the presumption of innocence protects, not damage to the reputations or careers of the powerful. Porter was never seriously threatened with the unfair exercise of state power. Even if criminal charges had been brought, the realities of proving sexual assault allegations to the standard required in the legal system mean that, in Porter’s case, there would be virtually zero chance of a conviction, let alone jail time. Which is why, in his press conference, Porter emphasised the presumption of innocence being necessary to provide protection not so much against the deprivation of liberty but to protect a person’s “career, their job, their life’s work”.
But no-one else in society gets to suppress accusations for this reason. Certainly not union officials, who are routinely dragged through the courts on spurious charges in what is a transparent exercise in associating unionism with criminality. Or when unions have their offices raided, as happened to the AWU in 2017 and the CFMEU last year, by police with tipped-off media in tow to generate anti-union news content, and which rarely result in charges.
Terror suspects get the same treatment, with the associated reputational damage, and the government doesn’t make the same effort to involve the media when the suspects are later released without charge. Or the jobs and reputations of the countless working-class people who have no choice but to plead guilty to criminal charges because they can’t afford the legal representation necessary to challenge them.
And let’s not forget that even when politicians are found to be actively breaking the law, as in the case of acting immigration minister Alan Tudge last October in relation to the false imprisonment of an Afghan refugee, there are not necessarily consequences. Quite the opposite—you can simply brazen it out with the support of the rule-of-law-loving attorney-general.
Giving credence to Porter’s baldly hypocritical defence are sympathetic figures in the media who have dignified it with reference to high literature and lofty ideals. Perhaps the worst has been Nine News’ political editor Chris Uhlmann, writing in the Age, whose extensive quotation of A Man for All Seasons in defence of a shifty government minister and accused rapist must have had Robert Bolt turning in his grave. The implication was that a familiarity with the literary canon is a necessary prerequisite to fully understand the nuances of Porter’s bad-faith rape defence. It’s no surprise that the Liberal ex-politicians and sympathisers who own or run the media outlets—former Treasurer and current chair of Nine Entertainment Peter Costello in the Age’s case—are only too happy to promote this contemptible partisan drivel.
But Porter is not mounting a defence on his own. To a man and a woman, the entire government has circled the wagons around the accused rapist in their ranks.
Despite saying in 2019, “It’s important that [women who report sexual assault] are believed and that they know that if they come forward, their stories will be believed”, Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the Porter case is so supremely uninterested he won’t even read the letter outlining the allegations against one of his senior ministers, let alone believe it. Porter’s denial is enough to meet Morrison’s rigorous standards of proof, with the prime minister subsequently going so far as to describe the attorney-general as “innocent”.
As even fellow creep and long-time promoter of the misogynistic Liberal Party Julie “feminist is not a term I find particularly useful” Bishop can see, it’s absurd to believe Morrison has been oblivious to all this, as he claims. Rather, he has been characteristically unmoved by the suffering of a woman, more concerned always with the ramifications for his tawdry government.
For its part, Labor is letting the government off the hook, presumably because it got the obvious message from Porter’s press conference that, if he goes down, Labor figures won’t be far behind. So the party is shying away from applying the sort of pressure needed to force an inquiry.
Meanwhile, right-wing media are decrying the “trial by media” and Morrison the “mob process”—by which he means people who have no platform other than social media to express their outrage about sexual assault—as something Porter should be protected against.
But the right-wing media have not been concerned about the trial by media that the complainant has been subjected to. Andrew Bolt has been tireless, pursuing every little detail that could discredit the accuser, from the name of the venue they went to on the night to the sanitary facilities in the college where the alleged rape occurred. While these details have since been shown not to discredit the accusation, Bolt’s objective has been achieved—to give those whose instinct is to side with an accused rapist something to cling to.
And, of course, any trial by media is happening only because the government refuses to commission an inquiry, which would provide a formal setting for the claims and counter-claims that are currently being aired via the media, something the Andrew Bolts of this world vehemently oppose.
Despite the honourable efforts of some journalists, the allegations about Porter have so far not garnered the sort of serious response they deserve. The government wants them buried and forgotten, and its mates in the corporate media and the ABC management are willing to comply.
The ruling class is closing ranks. So far, the only person to lose their job because of the Porter rape allegation is the female CEO of flashy right-wing law firm Minter Ellison, who was forced to resign after she sent an email to staff apologising for the firm’s involvement in defending Porter. The firm’s reason—stated explicitly by the lawyer concerned—was that Porter hails from “one of the firm’s largest clients”, that client being the federal government, with which Minter Ellison has $93 million worth of contracts.
The reality is there are precious few figures in power willing to challenge the protection racket the government is running for the attorney-general. They want Porter, who they see as an effective operator capable of further gutting the unions and stacking out the courts with Liberal party has-beens, to stay on however reprehensible he may be as a human being.
Their collective determination to head off an inquiry suggests the allegation is compelling and credible. And while an inquiry is unlikely to be able to elucidate the facts, what it can do, and what the government is clearly so afraid of, is make more details public and provide a forum for the accounts of witnesses that can strengthen (or perhaps weaken) the credibility of the allegations.
Of course, the nature of sexual assault allegations is that it is very difficult and rare to prove them definitively. It is a structural barrier to justice for victims for which there is no simple solution.
But giving both sides a hearing is only fair and absolutely no threat to the rule of law or natural justice, quite the opposite. The rejection of such a process, especially in the face of significant public pressure, only demonstrates how damaging the government anticipates one to be. We can only assume that if more details are to emerge, Porter’s position will be less and less tenable. And that’s what it’s all about for him and Morrison. Not justice.