The cabinet minister at the centre of a historical rape allegation “absolutely rejects” the claims, according to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The PM said on Monday he knew nothing of the rumours about the man until receiving an anonymous letter last week.
Mr Morrison rebuffed suggestions he should stand down the man at the centre of the claims, saying he won’t move on “the mere making of an allegation”.
However, it is unclear in what form any police investigation could proceed.
Mr Morrison and several other members of Parliament received an anonymous letter and 31-page dossier last week, with graphic claims of a brutal alleged rape in Sydney in 1988.
The alleged victim, who was just 16 at the time, told friends and family of her claims over several years.
Labor senator Penny Wong, who received one of the letters, said the woman had told her in 2019.
That woman died by suicide in June 2020.
Mr Morrison has been under intense pressure to act on the allegations, with several politicians calling for the minister to be stood down pending an investigation.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese has called it a “test” for the government.
Speaking for the first time since the report broke on Friday, Mr Morrison said on Monday he had spoken to the man, who “absolutely rejects” the claims.
“The individual involved here has vigorously rejected these allegations. And so, it’s a matter for the police,” Mr Morrison said at a press conference in Sydney, to release the report of the royal commission into aged care.
The PM said he had not read the letter and had been only briefed on its contents. He referred the allegations to Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw.
“In my discussions with the commissioner, there was nothing immediate that he considered that was necessary for me to take any action on,” Mr Morrison said.
With the woman’s death, it is extremely unlikely a rape investigation could proceed.
NSW Police told The New Daily that its “investigation was suspended” after the woman died, but that South Australia Police are preparing a report to the Coroner on her death.
It’s understood NSW Police had no formal statement on the woman’s claims before she died.
In a statement, the AFP confirmed it had received a report, but referred further questions to NSW Police.
“The AFP will liaise with the relevant state authorities,” a spokesperson said.
The AFP did not respond to questions about whether it could investigate a rape complaint.
When asked if he would carry out his own inquiry into the claims, Mr Morrison said “I’m not the police force. I have given it to the police to investigate”.
He also shrugged off questions about whether the minister should stand down.
“We can’t have a situation where the mere making of an allegation and that being publicised through the media is grounds for governments to stand people down simply on the basis of that,” Mr Morrison said.
“We have a rule of law in this country and it’s appropriate that these things were referred to the federal police. They have been.”
Mr Morrison said he first heard about the letter last Wednesday, but his office did not receive it until Friday.
However, he revealed he had heard “rumours” about the alleged rape as long ago as November – when the ABC’s Four Corners was investigating the treatment of women inside Parliament House and the Liberal Party.
“I tend to not pay attention to the rumours … I had no idea what or who it was about,” the PM said.
“I wasn’t aware of the substance of it and, as a result, not in a position to pursue it. When I was put in a position to pursue it, I did.”
Ministers back PM’s police defence
Several Coalition ministers earlier made similar comments on the alleged rape, stressing the importance of the “presumption of innocence” and citing a focus on police investigations over political probes.
Deputy Liberal leader, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, said “the focus has to be now on process”.
“Everybody, including the cabinet minister, is entitled to the presumption of innocence,” he said in Devonport on Monday morning.
“Every Australian deserves about right.”
Mr Frydenberg noted a letter from Commissioner Kershaw to Mr Morrison last week, in which he urged politicians to report serious matters to police.
“That letter, to the Prime Minister and subsequently made available to the Parliament, again re-emphasises the need for these matters to be in the hands of authorities. They are the best people to be dealing with such matters,” he said.
Disability Services Minister Stuart Robert said “let’s let the police determine that and take the next steps from there”.
Royal commission release
Mr Morrison was also grilled on the timing of his media briefing and the release of the royal commission into aged care’s report.
His office gave just 43 minutes notice of his press conference, at Sydney’s Kirribilli House, while the 1000-page report was released only at 1.30pm – meaning journalists had no time to read it before he spoke.
The government received the report on Friday.
“There will be plenty of opportunities to ask questions, but we’re before you now. This isn’t the only day to ask questions,” Mr Morrison said, when asked about the timeframe.
Asked by another journalist if the timing was a tactic, he pushed back.
“Today is not about the media. Today is about releasing the Royal Commission report,” he said.
“On occasion after occasion after occasion, I have no doubt you will quiz me on it. Today is the day for us telling Australia that it is released. There’ll be plenty of other opportunities.”