Scott Morrison says the cabinet minister at the centre of historical rape allegations has “vigorously rejected” the claims, while admitting he was aware of “rumours” of the alleged assault earlier this year.
The prime minister has so far declined to launch an independent inquiry into the allegations, declaring he was “not a police force”.
While confirming he had heard rumours of the allegations before the accusation was put to him formally in a letter last Friday, he said he had not felt the need to investigate it further.
Morrison has also said he sees no reason to stand down the accused minister.
“It is the police, in a country where you’re governed by the rule of law, that determine the veracity of any allegations of this nature,” he said at a press conference in Sydney.
“It is the police. My office, I do not have the people or others who are trained or competent or authorised to investigate matters of this nature.
“The police are the ones who do that and the police have had these matters referred to them, the individual involved here has vigorously rejected these allegations, and so it’s a matter for the police and in my discussions with the commissioner, there was nothing immediate that he considered that was necessary for me to take any action.”
Morrison said he had not read the documents that outlined the allegations, but had been briefed on their contents.
He said he learned of the complaint last Wednesday and spoke to the cabinet minister who was named as the alleged rapist.
“I’m not going to go into the conversation, simply to tell you I asked,” Morrison said.
“Did I raise it? Yes, I did. And he vigorously and completely denied the allegations. So that means there is a proper process now for it to follow.”
Speaking at a press conference called to discuss the final report of the royal commission into aged care, released only moments before it began, Morrison appeared defensive as questions turned to his handling of the rape allegations.
The historical allegations became public on Friday after two non-government senators, Labor’s Penny Wong and the Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young, announced they had received correspondence outlining the historical complaint and had forwarded it to the Australian federal police.
The woman had spoken to New South Wales police about her allegations in February 2020 and a task force was established to investigate, although a formal interview with police was delayed by the pandemic.
The woman withdrew her report later that year and killed herself shortly after. As sexual assault sits on state statutes, the AFP has no jurisdiction over the allegations, and NSW police can not push forward a sexual assault investigation where the complainant has died.
The prime minister continued to insist the federal police were best placed to deal with the matter and said there was no reason currently to stand the cabinet minister aside.
“I think it appropriate for the federal police to deal with it and for the federal police to advise me of the nature of this, which they’re doing,” he said.
“At this stage, the [police] commissioner has raised no issue with me – and the department secretary was present for that call as well – that would cause me to take action under the ministerial code.
“That’s where we are right now. And, you know, I’m aware of other allegations and, you know, I think similar, similar principles apply. We’ve got to be careful to ensure that we still follow the rule of law in this country.”
Morrison admitted he had heard “rumours” regarding the complaint earlier this year following questions from ABC investigative reporter Louise Milligan to the government.
The prime minister said he did not know the “substance” of the inquiry and did not seek to learn to whom the rumours pertained.
“I tend to not pay attention to the rumours,” he said.
Morrison said rumours of the letter outlining the complaint being sent to parliamentarians, including himself, was the catalyst for his conversation with AFP commissioner, Reece Kershaw, to detail the process of what MPs should do if they received information relating to sexual assaults.
“I discussed this with the commissioner,” Morrison said. “And he and I agreed that it was important that people understand that where these things arise, there is a proper process for dealing with these things and that proper process is what he outlined in that letter.”
Morrison has since used that process to deflect questions on these allegations by referring to it as a police matter.
The prime minister said he would not be acting on unverified claims.
“We can’t have a system in this country where allegations are simply presented, and I’m not suggesting this in this case, but we can’t have a situation where the mere making of an allegation and that being publicised through the media is grounds for, you know, governments to stand people down simply on the basis of that,” he said.