Top Law Officer Denies Rape Claim as a Reckoning in Australia Grows
SYDNEY, Australia — A growing reckoning on sexual misconduct touched the highest levels of Australia’s government on Wednesday when the country’s top law officer went before the cameras and categorically denied that he had raped a girl when he was a teenager.
Sounding at turns defiant and shaken, the attorney general, Christian Porter, 50, confirmed that he was the man described in a 30-page anonymously written letter that had been circulating in the capital, Canberra, since last week. It accused a member of Parliament of raping a 16-year-old girl in 1988.
She committed suicide last year. It is not known if her death was related to her rape accusation.
“The things that are claimed to have happened did not happen,” he said at a news conference in Perth, his hometown, adding that he would not resign.
Mr. Porter issued his defense just two weeks after a former government staff member, in a separate case, accused a male colleague of raping her inside Parliament House, touching off demands for accountability and reform in Australia’s halls of power. The accuser in that case, Brittany Higgins, filed an official police report last week.
The calls have only grown as other women have come forward with misconduct allegations against the man accused of rape by Ms. Higgins. The furor has been amplified as Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made remarks widely considered insensitive to victims of sexual assault.
In the case of Mr. Porter, the allegations long predate his career in government, going back to his time on a high school debate team. While he said he remembered the girl, a fellow debater, as an “intelligent, bright, happy person,” he said her accusations against him were simply false.
The police closed an investigation into the allegations on Tuesday, citing a lack of evidence. Mr. Porter said he had waited to address the issue until the authorities finished, adding that he would take a few weeks off to seek mental health assistance before returning to his role.
In explaining why he would not step down, he said that doing so would set a new standard by which “any person in Australia can lose their job and their life’s work based on nothing more than an allegation.”
But moving past what he called “a public trial by media” will be difficult.
“This issue is not resolved,” said Senator Sarah Hanson-Young of the Greens Party, one of the lawmakers who have read the letter detailing the accuser’s account. “There is a real sense out there in the community that issues like this need to be taken much more seriously.”
If calls for independent inquiries and tougher standards are only now being heard, they come after years of whispered complaints inside Australia’s government. Canberra, a manicured capital designed to be set apart from competing states, has long been a boozy playground for men, a threatening environment for women, and a secret society where misdeeds are expected to be kept hidden.
Many advocates for women note that while businesses, universities and other institutions in Australia have tried to get better at dealing with sexual misconduct — partly to protect their own reputations — the government continues to behave as if it were the 1970s.
“Parliament has become more and more disconnected from the mores of a modern workplace,” said Susan Harris-Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University. “It’s still a gentleman’s club kind of mentality.”
The messiness of the past few weeks, she added, with names of the accused surfacing on social media and disputes arising over when the political leadership learned about cases, shows just how far Canberra needs to go to fix its culture.
Nearly four years into the #MeToo movement, both Britain and Canada have introduced new complaint mechanisms that attempt to address the often-extreme power imbalances that dissuade people from coming forward.
In Australia, Ms. Harris-Rimmer said, “We have not been proactive about those changes.”
Ms. Higgins, the woman who said she was raped in Parliament two years ago after taking a job as a media adviser, said she initially pursued charges with the police. She later dropped them, she said, because of internal pressure from the governing Liberal Party that made her feel as if she had to choose between her work and justice.
She and her current partner both ended up leaving their jobs. She said last week she had been emboldened to file her police report by the political fallout from her decision to speak out.
Rachael Burgin, a lecturer in criminology at Swinburne Law School, said the prime minister was missing a much-needed opportunity to lead.
Mr. Morrison came under criticism after saying that the gravity of Ms. Higgins’s accusations hit him only after his wife had told him to imagine that one of their daughters had been assaulted. In the Porter case, he has maintained strong support for the attorney general. He said he had received the letter containing the woman’s accusations, but did not read it in full.
“I’ve seen nothing from anyone in the government to suggest that they’ve taken it seriously enough to see some substantive change,” Ms. Burgin said.
Mr. Porter, a former prosecutor who was named attorney general in 2017, said that while he had fought for victims of sexual assault in courtrooms, in his own case he was the target of unfounded accusations.
At his news conference on Wednesday, he did not mention the deceased woman’s name, though he began by offering his condolences to her family in the emotional voice of a rattled man. The woman has not been named as a matter of privacy.
He said they had met when she was 16 and he was 17. They were part of a four-person debating team that traveled to the University of Sydney for a competition.
“I remember it as a happy time,” he said. “It was 33 years ago. I remember the person as an intelligent, bright, happy person. But I haven’t had any contact with the person in my recollection since the time in January 1988.”
In her account, which has emerged in bits and pieces in the news media and through reporters’ questions, the attack followed a formal dinner and drinking, when Mr. Porter guided her back to a room where the rape occurred.
Mr. Porter said he recalled a formal meal, but as for the other allegations — “they just didn’t happen,” he said.
Asked if he might have forgotten, or if he could explain why the woman would make the accusation, he said he couldn’t speculate.
“I don’t know about her life or what challenges she faced,” he said.
Michael Bradley, the woman’s lawyer, said she first reported her complaint to the New South Wales police in February of last year. The investigation ran until June, when the woman died, and was revived later in the year.
Mr. Porter said he first heard of vague accusations in November, when “Four Corners,” Australia’s premier investigative news program, was working on a report about sexual misconduct allegations involving several members of Parliament.
The program accused the Liberal Party of tolerating and condoning inappropriate sexual behavior, exposing an extramarital affair between the population minister, Alan Tudge, and a female adviser in 2017. Mr. Tudge did not respond to questions from the program.
“Four Corners” also reported that Mr. Porter had been seen “cuddling and kissing” a female staff member in a Canberra bar, which he denies.
Mr. Bradley, the woman’s lawyer, said an independent inquiry was the only way for the public to assess whether Mr. Porter should stay in his position. He said the government had known for a long time that the attorney general had accusations of misconduct swirling around him, and chose to do nothing.
“There has been a pattern in Australian politics for a long time of burying scandals or allegations of wrongdoing and hoping they never surface and dealing with them reactively when they do,” Mr. Bradley said. “We’re entitled to expect better than this.”
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline can be reached at 13 11 14. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide help lines can be found at befrienders.org.
Livia Albeck-Ripka contributed reporting from Melbourne, Australia.