Politics

Lawyers dismiss Scott Morrison's appeal to 'rule of law' over historical rape allegation against Christian Porter

A senior lawyer has described the prime minister's dismissal of calls for an independent inquiry as "nonsense".

Legal experts have dismissed Prime Minister Scott Morrison's appeal to the "rule of law" in rejecting calls for an independent inquiry into a historical rape allegation against Attorney-General Christian Porter. 

In a press conference on Wednesday, Mr Porter strenuously denied claims that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl in Sydney in 1988.

The prime minister has dismissed growing calls for an independent inquiry to further examine the historical allegation, citing a now-closed police inquiry and the need to uphold the "rule of law". 

“The rule of law is the essential process by which all Australians are subject to. And there is an equality before the law as well,” he told reporters on Friday. 

Senior lawyer and director for the Centre for Public Integrity, Geoffrey Watson SC, described Mr Morrison's dismissal of a further inquiry based on such grounds as "nonsense". 

"Mr Morrison's appeal to the rule of law is nonsense," he told SBS News.

"It's impossible to work out how conducting such an inquiry would in any way be incapable or inconsistent with the rule of law. A properly designed inquiry has to be the way to go." 

The historical rape allegation was put to NSW Police in February last year by the Adelaide woman, who later took her own life. The police force has since closed its investigation due to a lack of admissible evidence. 

The South Australian coroner is also investigating the circumstances surrounding the woman's death and currently considering whether to conduct an inquest. 

In ruling out an independent inquiry taking place, Mr Morrison has said that no Australian should be held to a different standard than others. 

"There is a presumption of innocence," he told reporters on Friday.

"There is no alternative rule of law that should apply to one Australian and not to another.The suggestion that there should be, I think, can go to undermining the very principles of the rule of law in this country." 

Mr Porter - who has taken a short period of leave for his mental health - has also rejected calls to step aside from his position, warning he has become a victim of trial by media.  

He has questioned the process of an inquiry going ahead, concerned it would force him to "disprove something" that he claims "didn't happen". 

Mr Watson said the "seriousness" of the allegation made against Mr Porter warranted a further independent investigation, including to ensure confidence in his role as Australia's top law maker.

"People who sit at that table and those who are given the real power of overriding control over the laws in Australia - they need to be above and beyond reproach," he said. 

"This could go on to clear Mr Porter's name and that too would be a very, very good thing for all of us." 

Human Rights Law Centre executive director Hugh de Kretser agreed an independent inquiry would not undermine the "rule of law" but seek to "serve the interests of justice". 

"It would not undermine the rule of law for the Prime Minister to establish an inquiry into the allegations against the Attorney-General," he said in a statement.

"On the contrary, it would serve the interests of justice. There should be an independent inquiry."

Labor, the Greens and independent MPs and senators have put their weight behind calls for such an inquiry to go ahead.

"The fact that questions will continue to be asked is one of the reasons why there should be an inquiry," Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese told reporters on Friday.

"He's a cabinet minister and Scott Morrison needs to assure himself but also the Australian people that he's a fit and proper person to hold that role." 

South Australian State Coroner David Whittle has said the investigation into the woman's death remains “incomplete”, after which he will determine "whether to hold an inquest".  

Lawyers acting for the alleged victim’s family released a statement on Thursday saying they would be supportive of “any inquiry” that would shed light on the "circumstances surrounding" the woman’s death.

Mr Morrison on Friday said he would “welcome” an inquest by the South Australian Coroner. But he said it would “highly inappropriate” for any politician to interfere with this process.

Mr Watson said he believed a separate independent inquiry - possibly led by an eminent judge - would not emproach with the coroner's work.

"There is no trespass between conducting such an inquiry and the role of a coroner," he said. 

"They can both be held at once."

If you or someone you know is impacted by family and domestic violence or sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyondblue.org.auEmbrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

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