One of Scott Morrison’s senior ministers appears willing to allow nine of his male colleagues to wear the cloud of suspicion hanging over him.
While the Prime Minister says the man accused of brutally raping a 16-year-old girl 32 years ago “vigorously and completely denies” the allegation, he has not named him.
Probably more to the point, the man is studiously hiding from view.
This puts Scott Morrison in an invidious position.
The Prime Minister and other ministers who have made public appearances in the past three days have all said their colleague deserves the “presumption of innocence” and “natural justice”.
Sure he does, but don’t they deserve the courtesy of not having to wear the tag of all being alleged rapists?
Should he not identify himself, make a clear statement of his position and call for an independently constituted inquiry to support his claims of innocence?
This would be taking charge of the issue and a step to restoring perceptions of integrity.
The alleged victim’s lawyer, the Greens and some on the crossbench say the minister should also step aside while such an investigation is held.
It is a political solution, not a criminal justice solution. It goes to the propriety of the government and the moral calibre of those who lead it.
A huge question mark has been put over the cabinet of Australia and the nation needs assurances of its propriety.
The Prime Minister appears paralysed to act. He is biding his time, but for what?
Such procrastination may have already cost the government dearly; instead of like the High Court in the Dyson Heydon case and holding a discreet independent investigation after last year’s ABC Four Corners revelations, Mr Morrison paid scant attention.
He admitted as much in his Monday news conference, saying he didn’t take much notice of rumours.
The Prime Minister is placing great store in referring the matter to the Australian Federal Police and saying they are the ones who have the investigative expertise, not him.
Mr Morrison is hiding behind Commissioner Reece Kershaw’s badge when he says the police chief told him “there was nothing immediate that he considered that was necessary for me to take any action on”.
The Australian Federal Police have no investigation under way, nor do they have the jurisdiction in New South Wales where the alleged criminal assault took place to begin one.
The position was spelled out in a statement released on Saturday and referred to me on Monday as current.
It confirms the receipt of a complaint relating to an historic sexual assault, and it says “the AFP will liaise with the relevant state authorities”.
Tellingly it says “further enquiries can be directed to the New South Wales Police Force”.
The AFP it says “will not be making further comment”.
The Prime Minister obliquely referred to other issues that have been raised in relation to other members (of Parliament) in other cases.
The AFP acknowledges that they received another complaint on Sunday with no further comment.
This concerns an unnamed Labor MP – sources tell me that no mention was made of referral to this member’s state police because they have already fully investigated the allegations and prosecutors deemed them unlikely to lead to a conviction.
There’s not much consolation there for anyone looking for exoneration through shared guilt with their political opponents.
And there’s not much consolation for Australians needing the cabinet – the engine room of the government – to be grappling with the sorts of issues raised by one-time Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins and other women with an accused rapist in their midst.
Other senior ministers across the years have done their prime ministers the favour of quitting when it became obvious their presence was a huge distraction and negative for the government.
But having lost his working majority on the floor of the Parliament last week, Mr Morrison would be tempting fate to suggest that course of action now – especially as his besieged minister so far has shown no magnanimity to his colleagues.
The political calculus is horrible, never mind what the right thing to do is.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics
- For confidential support and services around sexual assault, contact 1800 RESPECT online or by phone on 1800 737 732. If you or someone you know needs help contact Life Line on 13 11 14