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He was accused of sexual assault decades after it allegedly occurred, in a way that makes police investigation all but impossible. Backed by his party and the most powerful man in the country, he maintained his innocence and held one of the most important legal positions in the country, even as questions continued to swirl around him.
Which man are you thinking of: Australia’s attorney general, Christian Porter, or the United States Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh?
Of course, there are key differences too: Kavanaugh was a new appointee, while Porter is a longstanding member of the government. And Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser, was able to publicly testify, which is impossible for Porter’s accuser, who died by suicide last year.
Still, the similarities between the two cases have unsettled many Australian women, intensifying concerns that Australia’s government is continuing to follow the playbook of the (now departed) Trump administration on a variety of issues.
The Kavanaugh comparison was the first thing that came to mind for Sharna Bremner, founder of the advocacy organization End Rape on Campus Australia, when she learned about the allegation against Porter. For her, the American case offers a grim foreshadowing of how the case could play out in Australia.
“I think what we’re about to see again is that powerful men can get away with anything,” she said.
As with Kavanaugh’s eventual appointment to the Supreme Court, she said, “the message that’s being sent now is: ‘Don’t speak up. You won’t be believed.’”
The cases highlight the challenge of how to handle allegations of serious misconduct leveled against people in positions of authority which fall outside the scope of law enforcement.
Porter, like Kavanaugh, is not facing a criminal case to determine guilt or innocence. His accuser did not make a sworn statement and wrote to police to say she did not want to pursue an investigation. The police closed their investigation, citing a lack of evidence.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Porter’s other supporters have refused to consider other avenues of investigation, with Morrison arguing that to do so would mean “we are eroding the very principles of the rule of law.”
But critics argue that an equally important question for Porter, as was the case for Kavanaugh, is whether the public is able to retain confidence in him and, by extension, in the institution he represents. Calls for an independent inquiry have been mounting.
“These are not ordinary men, they are men vying for the highest legal offices in the land,” said Susan Harris Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University. “This digging in and invoking the rule of law misses the point that they need to be of the highest character.”
The way the government has handled the situation “undermines people’s belief that institutions are in their interests,” Professor Harris Rimmer said. “For a lot of women, it confirms every dark fear they have.”
Mark Kenny, an expert in politics at the Australian National University, said the government’s response also reflects a broader trend of borrowing from the Trump playbook of “simply ignoring what you might call elite or political community outrage, appealing directly to the people and positioning critics as partisans all the time.”
In recent years, there’s been a reluctance on the part of the federal government to remove ministers for known or perceived misconduct, he said, which “completely ignores a principal concern associated with public fields and good governance and that’s the issue of public confidence.”
A couple of decades ago, ministers resigned for declaring an imported color TV as black-and-white on a customs form and for failing to pay import duty tax on a single teddy bear.
More recently, members of the Morrison government have stayed in office despite a slew of controversies, including Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s public release of a fake document, a potential audit into whether Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton mishandled government grants and Defense Minister Linda Reynolds needing to publicly apologize for mishandling a rape complaint involving a former member of her staff.
On Thursday, Leigh Sales, one of the country’s top journalists, summarized the situation in an interview with a minister with this question: “How good does it feel to be a minister in the Morrison government knowing that no matter what questions arise over your conduct, your job’s safe?”
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