Without an inquiry, Scott Morrison's ministerial standards don't amount to a hill of beans

Richard Ackland
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Should we know the name of the alleged cabinet-level rapist in Canberra? Of course, we should and we must.

Even in our own shaky version of democracy, parliamentary representatives on the public purse are accountable to the people so it’s ludicrous that a cone of silence should descend on these wretched details.

Just about every functioning person in the vicinity of parliamentary life in Canberra has a name on their lips. Yet, for those outside the bubble, it has been a guessing game.

Obviously, the lawyers have got into the editors’ ears and advised “don’t publish”, because maybe the name you are thinking about is wrong, or even if it is right, the law of defamation will make this an expensive gamble.

Related: Minister has 'vigorously rejected' historical rape allegations, Scott Morrison says

So, people who are anxious to let you have the knowledge have had to keep as schtum as church mice.

Further, and even better, the presumption of innocence is being rolled out by traditional free speech contenders in Canberra.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg banged the drum today: “Here in Australia we adhere to the rule of law ... And fundamental to the rule of law is the presumption of innocence. Every Australian deserves that right.

“So yes, there have been very serious matters raised across the parliament in recent weeks, this has been the subject of much commentary and attention. But the focus has to be now on process.”

We’ll just ignore the notion, for a minute, that Josh was referencing one of his rivals for the top job.

Health minister Greg Hunt was regrettably loose with his language: the matter was with the police so any comment would be to “proceed down an inappropriate pathway”.

The shorthand version of this is two things: stop the talk about the allegation and whatever you hear, he’s innocent.

Wanting to convert this into a legal process is a nice try by politicians who lurk in a fetid parliamentary environment. It is well beyond that, for the story has landed plumb in the political quagmire.

In times of need we all cling to the presumption of innocence and the legal standard required for conviction. The law is cautious and protective. Politics, however, is raw, cruel and on occasions destructive.

The rule of law is not the same as the rule of parliamentary politics. The prime minister’s statement on ministerial standards says as much.

“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.”

Related: Legal experts call for independent investigation of historical rape claim against minister

Implicitly, the standards of the prime minister of the day determine the standards of the ministry in the face of an allegation of criminality. Being charged or convicted is not a precondition of the rather flexible standard.

For the government to try and sweep this away under the carpet of “process” completely misconceives what is at stake. It is the stain of this allegation hanging over the heads of the entire male population of the cabinet that destroys whatever remaining authority an executive government has to offer.

It would be an unlanced festering sore at the nation’s heart, because as a result of the complainant’s suicide last year, it cannot be thoroughly tested in the courts.

So where to now? A police investigation would fall to the jurisdiction of New South Wales, where the alleged rape occurred. Even though the victim has died, there are others who could cast light on the events – people she spoke to at the time, those who observed her and relevant letters. Even so, that is not going to get off the ground as a prosecution.

Morrison’s people say the complaint has gone to the AFP, which is entirely irrelevant. The federal police do not investigate rape offences under the NSW Crimes Act.

A coronial inquiry in South Australia is unlikely to cast light on the alleged 1988 rape of the deceased victim.

So it is the prime minister who is left without a chair when the music stops. To try and patch this politically, he would have to order an inquiry into the “alleged illegal or improper conduct”.

It’s that or his ministerial standards don’t amount to a hill of beans.

The prime minister has said he has questioned the cabinet minister, whose name he knows but the public do not, and the man in question “absolutely” denies he committed the crime.

We’re now in the business-as-normal mode: duck, weave, deny, gasp for breath, hang on for grim death and hope the caravan moves on.

This time it won’t and it shouldn’t.