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Christian Porter

Grattan on Friday: Scott Morrison can’t get a circuit breaker while Porter remains

Scott Morrison has a near obsession with control. But suddenly – in the course of only weeks – he has found himself presiding over a government in a shambles, where he is reacting rather than driving.

All the mayhem flows from a common source – two rape allegations, one involving staffers in a minister’s office in 2019, the other relating to a minister accused of assaulting a woman, now dead, years before he entered politics.

Waves from these allegations have embroiled the Prime Minister’s staff in a “who knew what” inquiry, threatened the futures of two members of his cabinet, and are now complicating the progress of a key part of the government’s policy agenda.

Attorney-General Christian Porter and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds are still standing, walking wounded anxiously hoping Morrison does not kick away their crutches.

But they are both on leave, coping with stress. Other ministers are having to rush around filling the gaps they’ve left.

Porter is also industrial relations minister. He was due, when parliament meets for the week starting March 15, to steer the government’s workplace legislation through the Senate. Ahead of that, he’s been negotiating on the detail with crossbenchers crucial to its fate.

If the bill isn’t finalised that week, there won’t be another opportunity until the budget session.

Porter’s mental health leave appears open-ended – maybe a fortnight, perhaps longer. Employment Minister Michaelia Cash is filling in for him in the two portfolios, as well as continuing her own work. It’s hardly ideal when the government wants the IR bill done and dusted ASAP so it doesn’t have to talk about it anymore.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne, standing in for Reynolds, this week has had to deal with the backlash over the miscued remarks from Chief of the Australian Defence Force Angus Campbell. However well intentioned, Campbell’s reported advice to cadet officers for keeping safe – guard against “four As”, namely alcohol, out after midnight, alone and attractive – was seen by some as shifting the onus onto potential victims. In Reynolds’ absence, Payne gave Campbell a mild verbal clip over the ear.

Read more: View from The Hill: Despite his denial, Christian Porter will struggle with the 'Caesar's wife' test

Reynolds this week took another hit when it was leaked that she’d called Brittany Higgins, who alleged a colleague raped her in the minister’s office, a “lying cow”. Reynolds, who made the remark on February 15 within the open section of her office, wasn’t doubting Higgins’ allegation but rather, her claim about the inadequate level of support she received after making it.

Morrison, while condemning Reynolds’ “offensive” remark, for which she later apologised to staff, defended her, saying among other things that it had been made in a “stressful week”. But Higgins on Thursday threatened to sue unless she received an apology.

Reynolds was due back at work next Monday but is extending her medical leave.

Most difficult for Morrison now is how the Porter story will pan out. The Attorney-General’s Wednesday statement, denying the deceased woman’s allegation, has done little but further polarise attitudes.

Like Tony Abbott before him, Porter has become a lightning rod for the passionate determination of activist women campaigning on a range of issues, in this case violence against women.

Calls for Morrison to establish an independent inquiry into the historical rape claim have met a brick wall, as the PM casts the issue as a test of the “rule of law”.

So it is, but it is equally a test of the power of mobilising emotion and anger as a political force, and that is proving extremely potent.

On Thursday the woman’s family issued a statement via a lawyer, saying they were “supportive of any inquiry which would potentially shed light on the circumstances surrounding the deceased’s passing”.

The Prime Minister’s Office reads this in the context of a South Australian inquest into her death, but the statement puts strong new pressure on Morrison. If he continues to fend off calls for an inquiry, he could find himself at odds with the family.

If he did a highly unlikely u-turn and agreed to an inquiry, it would be very hard for him not to require Porter to stand aside while it was held. Given the range and centrality of Porter’s job, that would impede significant parts of the government’s work in the coming months.

Even the police are feeling the heat, and a need to explain themselves. NSW police declared the case closed on Tuesday but on Thursday put out a detailed account of their handling of the matter.

The woman making the allegation had met police in Sydney in February 2020. According to the account, during that meeting she disclosed she had health issues and said she dissociated “and wanted to ensure when supplying her statement that she was ‘coherent and as grounded as possible’”.

Investigators had contact with her at least five times in the next three months, the police statement said.

On June 23 2020 the woman had emailed the police “indicating she no longer felt able to proceed with reporting the matter, citing medical and personal reasons. The woman very clearly articulated in that email that she did not want to proceed with the complaint.” She took her own life the following day.

Innocent or not, there is no obvious way Porter can get out of the morass he’s in. Morrison needs a circuit breaker and the most obvious would be for Porter to quit the ministry.

The government argues this would set a precedent of forcing someone out even though he has not been found guilty of anything.

But there is a point when a minister, fairly or unfairly, has become damaged goods, and keeping them extracts too high a price. This especially applies when we are talking about the attorney-general.

Read more: Where do we go from here with the allegations about Christian Porter?

Although the circumstances were different and the consequences less far reaching, Bridget McKenzie had to fall on her sword after the sports rorts affair.

If Porter went to the backbench, this would facilitate a degree of reset for the government. The debate about Porter would continue, but its political impact would be defused.

Porter’s departure from the ministry would trigger a reshuffle, which would enable Morrison to move Reynolds into a portfolio better suited to her than defence is.

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