The Australian government is under increasing pressure over its handling of a rape allegation against one of its most senior ministers.
On 23 February, ABC News reported that Prime Minister Scott Morrison and two senators from other parties received a letter alleging a current Cabinet minister raped a girl, 16, in Sydney in 1988.
Reports claimed in February 2020 the alleged victim, who lived in Adelaide, had reported the assault to the New South Wales Police, but the investigation was delayed by Covid-19 border closures. The woman took her own life in June last year, aged 49.
The allegation became public with the government already under fire for its handling of an alleged rape of a government staffer, Brittany Higgins, in a minister’s parliamentary office in 2019.
On Monday Mr Morrison said the allegation against the minister was a matter for the police and that it would be referred to the Federal Police – who have no jurisdiction over violations of the NSW criminal code.
Mr Morrison said the minister had categorically denied the allegation. But when asked if he believed the denial, he said: “That’s a matter for the police. I’m not the police commissioner”.
The minister has not been sacked, or publicly named.
Veteran federal politics reporter Samantha Maiden, who knew the late alleged victim, told The National that the Prime Minister and his government were trying to avoid responsibility for investigating the allegation.
“The government says leave it to the police," Maiden said. "That would be fine if the woman wasn’t dead. Her allegations can’t be tested.
"They say they will refer it to the Australian Federal Police. To suggest that referring it to the AFP is some kind of solution is nonsense.
“The options are a coronial inquest in South Australia into the circumstances leading to her death, or they could go for some sort of independent judicial inquiry.
"The prime minister doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about that idea.
“They want to flick-pass this by saying, ‘This is a matter for the police’, which relies on the fact most people will think that seems OK, but the police suspended the investigation when she died.”
Maiden said it was “an extraordinary situation” in which “this woman is reaching out from the grave because she had told so many people, and left behind so many documents when she died, and these friends of hers were not prepared to let her allegations die with her”.
“When I heard her age and that she was from Adelaide, I thought ‘I must know her’.
"I rang a couple of people and found out she was someone with whom I went to school.
“She was one of the best and brightest people of that generation that came to Adelaide University.
"There was confusion amongst some of her friends about why she never hit the heights at university.
“She was a very meticulous, very intelligent, very details-oriented person. She kept a diary, and there are many friends of hers around at the time who are prepared to speak out.
"I came across seven or eight people I know who she had told. In her final years she would tell anyone who would listen.”
Maiden said the woman had checked into a centre in Melbourne for mental healthcare reasons in 2020 and on her return to Adelaide, South Australia, spent two weeks in isolation in June.
During that time, she cut her hair in the style in which she had kept it in her final two years of high school, the same style it was in a photograph taken of her with the accused rapist, and shortly after took her own life.
A mass protest has been planned for noon on 15 March, the next sitting day of Federal Parliament.
Janine Hendry, one of the March 4 Justice organisers, told The National that at least 5,000 women would circle the Parliament and turn their backs to it in a symbolic protest.
“We are also co-ordinating with groups in every capital city," Ms Hendry said.
"The protest has emerged out of a wave of anger from women at the multiple allegations of rape [from former staffer Brittany Higgins], including child rape [by the Cabinet minister], assault and harassment, and at the federal government’s woeful response.
“It’s just incredible when you look at the government’s responses. Scott Morrison is suggesting he didn’t know about an alleged rape in his workplace, but … senior ministers and at least five people in his own office knew.
"Either the prime minister was not told because they didn’t think it was important enough, or he is lying about it.
"If that is the way they view this issue we as women have every right to be really angry.
“We are asking for transparency in every parliament. We need to know what is happening in terms of equity and for an independent review of gendered violence in parliament.
"What can I do as a single mother with a 16-year-old son trying to raise him in an environment where he grows up to respect women when the leaders of the country demonstrate the utmost disrespect?”