WELLINGTON – Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday expressed support for his attorney-general, who this week denied accusations he raped a schoolgirl when he was a teenager.
Morrison told reporters Australia must follow the rule of law and the presumption of innocence in the matter, after police concluded there was insufficient evidence to investigate lawmaker Christian Porter, a 50-year-old former prosecutor.
The woman who accused Porter died by suicide last year after she had gone to police and then later withdrawn her complaint. Her accusation against Porter became public last week after being sent anonymously to Morrison and other lawmakers.
The case has intensified scrutiny of the culture in Parliament, where a staff member two weeks ago made an unrelated claim that she was raped by a senior colleague.
In the latest case, Morrison said his heart broke for the woman's family, who lost a loved one.
“These are harrowing events," he said.
But he said Porter had absolutely rejected the allegations and Australia must follow the law.
“You will be aware of the terrible things that can happen in a country where the rule of law is not upheld and is not supported, in whatever the circumstances," Morrison said. "The rule of law is essential for liberal democracies, and we weaken it at our great peril.”
Prominent lawyers and the woman’s friends have called for an independent inquiry to test the evidence against Porter, while some opposition lawmakers say the allegations are serious and credible.
But Morrison said police were the authorized authorities to make judgments about the case, and “that's where the matter rests.”
On Wednesday, Porter held an emotional press conference in which he said he wouldn't quit his job.
"If I stand down from my position as attorney-general because of an allegation about something that simply did not happen, then any person in Australia can lose their career, their job, their life’s work based on nothing more than an accusation that appears in print,” Porter said.
The allegations date back more than three decades, when Porter was 17 and his accuser was 16, and they competed alongside each other on a four-member school debate team.
Porter said he remembered his accuser as intelligent, bright and happy — but that nothing sexual occurred between them.
“It just didn’t happen,” he told reporters.
Porter said he's planning to take a couple of weeks off “just for my own sanity” before returning to work.
Morrison said he was pleased Porter was taking the break.
“I’m looking forward to him returning to his duties once that period of leave is completed," the prime minister said.
A new confidential complaints hotline for reporting serious workplace incidents has been set up for Parliament House staff, the government said this week.