Scott Morrison has said the cabinet minister accused of historical rape denies the allegation “categorically”.
As calls for an inquiry into the alleged assault continued, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull urged the man to identify himself.
“I think for the sake of his colleagues, the government, everybody – he should front up and state who it is,” Turnbull told the ABC’s 7.30.
Facing a barrage of questions about the issue at his news conference on the aged care royal commission report, Morrison insisted the matter should rest firmly with the police – even though they are not able to take it further because the woman is dead.
Morrison would not be drawn on whether he believed the allegation to be false. “That is a matter for the police.”
Pressed on whether it was acceptable to have a cabinet minister remain in his position with this hanging over his head, Morrison said “I think it’s appropriate for the matter to be dealt with by the federal police and the federal police to advise me of the nature of this, which they’re doing.
"At this stage, the commissioner [Reece Kershaw] 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.”
Morrison appears careful in including time caveats. If the issue escalated politically, there is a feeling he could cut the minister loose.
The Prime Minister was among four parliamentary recipients last week of a letter from anonymous friends of the alleged victim, who claimed she was raped by the man in 1988, when she was 16. The woman took her own life last year but the letter included a statement she had written.
Morrison said he became aware on Wednesday evening that the letter was coming to him, although he did not receive it until Friday afternoon.
That evening he spoke to the minister, Kershaw, and senior officials of his department.
Morrison would not go into details of his conversation with the minister, beyond saying he (Morrison) had raised the matter “and he vigorously and completely denied the allegations”.
The events of Wednesday explain the background to the letter Kershaw sent Morrison on Wednesday stressing “the importance of timely referrals of allegations of criminal conduct”. This letter was subsequently circulated to MPs.
Asked if he had heard of the allegation before last week, Morrison said he’d heard “only rumours of an ABC investigative journalist making some inquiries. That’s all I’d heard. I didn’t know the substance of them.”
Asked if he had known who was being referred to, he said, “I tend to not pay attention to rumours.”
Pushed on whether the rumour was about alleged rape, he said, “Well I wasn’t aware of the substance of it and as a result not in really a position to pursue it. When I was put in a position to pursue it, I did”.
Under further questioning Morrison said he had heard the rumours around the time of the ABC Four Corners story last year on the “Canberra Bubble”, dealing with sexual misbehaviour.
“But I had no idea what or who it was about,” he said.
Turnbull said the “ball is really in the court of the minister concerned. I mean, he knows who he is. Everyone knows who he is.
"He may well have known about these allegations for a long time. One of the things we don’t know is whether he’d had any communication with the woman who’d made the complaint, right? So there’s a lot of questions to be answered.”