Despite denial, Porter will face issues in government

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Porter declares he’s determined to stay in his job, saying to quit would mean anyone could lose their career “based on nothing more than an accusation that appears in print”, writes political columnist MICHELLE GRATTAN.

CHRISTIAN Porter’s denial of the historical rape allegation is unequivocal, but it won’t draw a line under the issue for him or for the Morrison government.

Porter declares he’s determined to stay in his job, saying to quit would mean anyone could lose their career “based on nothing more than an accusation that appears in print”.

Michelle Grattan

It’s true there is little natural justice in this situation. But in politics, there are often many competing factors.

Porter is right that it’s difficult to recall circumstances like this present crisis, with its passion and fevered coverage, and frenzied abuse via social media. And the worst of it is, there’s no way of definitively finding out what did or did not occur, and so where “justice” lies.

A woman who is now dead claimed she was raped by Porter when they were both teenagers. From what she told people and wrote, she had no doubt it happened. Porter says he has no doubt it did not happen.

The police can’t determine the truth, because the woman is deceased, and an independent inquiry wouldn’t be able to do so either.

The claim and counter claim will be fought out in the court of public opinion and it will be an ugly contest.

Porter is not just any minister: his role as attorney-general sets him apart. He is the country’s first law officer – which means he must be above any suspicion. It’s the old “Caesar’s wife” test and – properly – the bar is high.

However unfair it might be, Porter will now never be above suspicion, at least in the minds of many.

Before he was a politician, Porter was a crown prosecutor. He has been around court rooms, and so used to tense situations.

Of course his news conference was not a court room and things are different when you are defending yourself, but it was notable how rattled he was.

He wanted to avoid the details of that January 1988 time when the four teenagers were in Sydney as part of a debating team (which raises the idle question, where are the other two team members now and what do they think?). When pushed by journalists, some of his answers were fumbling.

What state he will be in after a period of leave remains to be seen, because it is likely the pressure on him will increase rather than ease.

Then there’s the question of the impact on the whole government. It is extraordinary what a toll the Brittany Higgins’ affair and the allegation against Porter are taking. It amounts to an enormous distraction for Morrison.

All this at a time when the government is struggling with the early days of the vaccine rollout.

And of course, the positive news has been put in the shade – Wednesday’s economic growth of 3.1 per cent for the December quarter, which is a seriously good performance by any international standards.

Morrison is loyal to his ministers – or at least he understands that to put political blood in the water by cutting a minister loose is never without consequences.

When it is the attorney-general, that would be a huge step.

But asked this week whether he believed Porter’s denial, Morrison would not commit himself. “That is a matter for the police,” he said.

Significantly, Morrison didn’t send the woman’s statement to Porter after he received it in the letter from her friends on Friday. Porter said he still hasn’t seen it.

Porter’s spokesman said on Wednesday night that to have received the statement or documents when he was the subject of them, and they were matters for law enforcement agencies, would have been “inappropriate”. This seems a stretch.

Porter says he has Morrison’s support. The question is whether he will retain it in the days to come.

There is this hiatus, while Porter is on stress leave, during which Morrison can assess the situation.

He must decide whether he will remain dug in behind his embattled minister or encourage him to conclude that, despite what he said in his statement, his position is untenable.

Michelle Grattan is a professorial fellow at the University of CanberraThis article was originally published on The Conversation.

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Michelle Grattan
Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra, Michelle Grattan is one of Australia's most respected and awarded political journalists.

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