The lawyer for the woman who accused a federal cabinet minister of a 1988 rape says Prime Minister Scott Morrison should sideline the minister while authorities investigate, as a new letter about a Labor MP escalates claims about sexual assault.
A debate over whether to name the minister intensified late on Sunday when claims Victorian Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson said she had been told of an alleged rape by a Labor MP and had forwarded the claim to the Australian Federal Police.
Liberal senator Sarah Henderson.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Senator Henderson did not name the MP but said she had received an email from a woman on Sunday afternoon that alleged the rape. She gave no further details of what was contained in the letter.
Marque Lawyers partner Michael Bradley said the cabinet minister should stand aside because his integrity was in question and the alleged crime cast a shadow over the entire government.
But Mr Morrison rejected calls for the man’s resignation or a special inquiry into the events of three decades ago, arguing the code of conduct for ministers only required someone to step aside if and when police laid charges.
Health Minister Greg Hunt warned against speculation about the cabinet minister’s identity by citing advice from the Australian Federal Police about the risk to an investigation from public commentary on a case.
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull revealed on Sunday he and his wife, Lucy, had received a letter from the woman at the end of 2019 with details of the alleged crime.
Mr Turnbull said the woman had described a “pretty horrific rape” and said she had kept extensive diaries, which he thought might be produced at any coronial or other inquiry.
The woman who accused the cabinet minister told NSW Police early last year she had been raped by the man in January 1988, when she was 16. She had not made a formal statement when she returned home to Adelaide, where took her life in June, leading the police to suspend their investigation.
South Australian Police are preparing a report for the state coroner amid an intense debate over the publicity given to the woman and her claims after the ABC revealed an anonymous letter about her case on Friday.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said Mr Morrison faced a “test” over whether to hold an investigation or ask the minister to step aside.
“It’s his responsibility – he solely appoints the cabinet. He must assure himself that it’s appropriate that the current make-up of the cabinet can continue,” he said.
The Labor leader did not say the cabinet minister should step aside, resign or be removed.
Mr Bradley, who founded Marque Lawyers and acted for the woman at the time she made her complaint to police, said the minister should step aside during the investigations due to questions of integrity, not necessarily the law.
“I think he will have to stand aside, at the moment at least, because he’s been accused of such a grave crime,” Mr Bradley said.
“It’s untenable for him not to, I would think. It’s not really a legal question, it’s a question of propriety.
“It goes to his ability to do his job. It’s necessary that his integrity is not under serious question.
“And it’s about the integrity of the entire government – whether it can carry on with a cloud this huge hanging over it.”
With the NSW Police investigation on hold after the woman’s death, defenders of the cabinet minister argued he could not get a fair hearing given the case would not go to trial.
An independent investigation would also encounter problems because NSW Police do not have a formal statement from the woman, the usual step when a complainant is interviewed and signs the document.
The cabinet minister has not been named by police or the media and his office did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
The debate over the minister’s past began after the ABC reported on Friday night that friends of the woman had sent an anonymous letter that day to Mr Morrison, Labor Senator Penny Wong and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw wrote last week that disseminating allegations in the media “risks prejudicing” any police investigations.
Mr Hunt said this meant public commentary on the 1988 case was “strongly discouraged” and “not an appropriate pathway” under the AFP advice.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age asked the Prime Minister’s office whether the cabinet minister would be stood aside and, if not, what the grounds were for keeping him in his job while inquiries continued.
Mr Morrison’s spokesman said the ministerial code of conduct said ministers should stand aside if and when they are charged with a crime.
The code, however, also gives the Prime Minister discretion on the matter.
”Ministers must accept that it is for the Prime Minister to decide whether and when a minister should stand aside if that minister becomes the subject of an official investigation of alleged illegal or improper conduct,” it says.
“Ministers will be required to stand aside if charged with any criminal offence.”
Greens leader Adam Bandt called for a federal inquiry into the matter and for the minster to step aside.
”If the Prime Minister doesn’t at least stand this man aside while he conducts his own inquiry, then he’s sending the terrible message there is space in his cabinet for someone with an unresolved rape accusation,” he said.
The Herald and The Age have not seen the anonymous letter but it is said to ask for an inquiry similar to the one launched by High Court Chief Justice Susan Kiefel in 2019 into former judge Dyson Heydon. The review found he had sexually assaulted six young women.
Senator Wong said she had first become aware of the allegation when she spoke to the woman in Adelaide in November 2019.
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).
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