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A falling man

Is Australia's Attorney-General a rapist?

· social-political,people,history

That this galling and improbable question can even be asked in modern Australia is a measure of a moral and political fever that has taken hold in the country I was born.

It began with a programme from our national broadcaster in November last year, and it was called "Inside the Canberra Bubble." Just last week the ABC's 4-Corners programme followed up with a story called "Bursting the Canberra Bubble," a title suggesting a direct connection between the two stories, and a sense of dénouement (which, as I'll make plain, is misplaced). As I write, it appears that the latter story has been taken offline.

The first story circled around a series of incidents in the national capital involving the behaviour of senior government ministers towards women, including Attorney-General Christian Porter. It was an oddly constructed report, disjointed and without the concerted narrative thrust one would expect from a major piece of political reportage. The reason for that oddity would become apparent in the months ahead.

Nevertheless, it included enough elements of a story to make it worthwhile watching.

It suggested that a combination of the hothouse political atmosphere of the national capital, hubris, an acculturated and habitual disdain towards women in Australian politics, as well as the personal history of Porter, had accumulated and manifested itself in risqué behaviour by the man who is currently Australia's First Law Officer of the Crown – the functionary who presides over the law courts, legal reform, and national and public security.

It went on to describe a number of incidents, backed by evidence, that almost certainly fell foul of the Ministerial Code of Conduct (known in part colloquially as the "bonk ban"), as well as the standards expected of a senior political figure in today's Australian society.

One interviewee was the former Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, who made the point that he had cautioned Porter on reports he had received of the self-professed 'suburban family-man' cavorting with young female political staffers in the bars of Canberra.

As Turnbull said, nobody is conscripted to serve in politics, and "people who put themselves into positions where they can be compromised or blackmailed are really taking... unacceptable risks." Canberra has spies, of course, and Australia has allies potentially compromised by a public servant with the highest levels of security clearance who exposes themselves to manipulation.

“The reputation of a man is like his shadow; gigantic when it precedes him, and pygmy in its proportions when it follow.” Talleyrand.

The fact that it seems highly unlikely that this would ever comes to pass is not the point: structural risks in matters of extreme national interest are reduced in order to limit human fallibility as much as possible. Hence the "bonk ban."

This precautionary tale was about many things apart from the fetchingly wheat-hued Porter and the temptations of the blooming seed beds of 'hothouse Canberra' (available staffers, interns, and colleagues).

Firstly it was a suggestive commentary on a Liberal Party largely unreformed by the scorching eye of the #metoo movement. Compared with their Labor adversaries, the Liberal party has continued to hold women in abeyance (with the exception of stand-out leaders like former Liberal Foreign Minister Julie Bishop), apart from prodding them forward in press conferences as tokenistic defenders of the Coalition's deep respect for women as equals (and despite the considerable numbers of female Liberal parliamentarians who seem talented and decent).

[The most senior Liberal, Minister of Defence Linda Reynolds, slightly soiled her feminist credentials over the past fortnight when she referred to a young former female complainant of sexual harassment as "a lying cow." She promptly joined her colleague Christian Porter on sick leave from Cabinet.]

The story was also about a social vein of self-annointed elitism, largely spawned by the private school system in Australia. This born-to-rule superiority promotes entitlement and chummy networks above all else, even as it winks and nudges at progressive doctrine and disinterested public service, and helps itself to the baubles of life – money, position, and sexual pickings – with a faux-Patrician languid greed unburdened by an authentic Periclean moral grounding.

Hooray Henry vaunts his love for the good things in life, before rushing off to service in a soup kitchen that evening.

And it was about revenge. A woman who had had a relationship with a government minister (another man who modelled himself as a paragon of family virtues, and who had staunchly opposed same-sex marriage legislation on the grounds that it mocked those supposedly lived virtues) cooperated with a journalist to undo her former lover.

And a different old female school-era debating colleague of Porter's combined inside the story with the aggrieved lover to add a more nuanced but deadly flavouring to the brewing scandal by revealing that Porter, a man also responsible for laws governing the treatment of women, had frequently expressed a loud disdain for them as a young man, even as he sought sexual compliance.

Who can possibly guess at the back-story to that seething piece of righteous revenge? A lost debate? A stolen debating pin? A stolen or stymied kiss? Or just a stout sense of the greater public good by this woman who is now a barrister?

It was a story also clearly brimming with political revenge, with the stiletto-tongued former prime minister contentedly shivving his former protégé with a swordsman's steady hand he was unable to muster when he led the country.

The second, and potentially far more incendiary story, was about a woman who was allegedly raped by a 17-year old Porter when she was 16, and when both were fellow debaters at an international debating championship in Sydney in 1988.

The woman seems to have shielded this awful secret from her friends for most of her life, until it began to steadily slip out when she was in her 40's, along with episodes of her mental instability, whereupon a few came to know of the details of an alleged attack that took place at night, in a dorm room on a university, without witnesses, more than 30 years ago. It also explained the slight oddity of the first 4-Corners story, since it seems that the contents of the second story had been known at the time of production of the first but had been held back (wisely, in the event, I'd say) because of legal advice.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Gentileschi was just 20 when she painted this work in 1612, about a year after her rape by Agostino Tassi. How riveting the expression on the faces of these women as they despatch their would-be destroyer... how satisfying it must have been for Artemisia to part-excise her brutalisation on canvas.

Confusingly – and the reporting of sexual assault, the gestatory effects of an assault, the sense of shame and powerlessness, the confusion that accompanies traumatic memory, the uncertain and murky world of 'consent', mental ill health, and many other factors ensure confusion – she met Porter some six years later and had dinner with him. Twenty years after that dinner, she began to tell more people, and was advised by some to report the assault (including by the sage gay Senator Penny Wong, who many think ought to have made Prime Minister), which she did to Sydney police, before withdrawing the complaint a year later and committing suicide just two days after that in June 2020.

In thinking about this incident, I certainly felt deep pity for the woman – who wouldn't? One who was lauded by all her childhood friends as brilliant, a star in the firmament of life that covers our horizon when we are young, yet who led such a bruising and unhappy life as she encountered the world. But the untestable arc between that late complaint, specified in detail to friends and in a written account, and what actually happened more than a generation ago, is simply too ephemeral (for me at least) to be able to grasp for even a summary and impulsive judgment.

“Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” Cassio's lament in Othello.

So, is Australia's Attorney-General a rapist?

Is he a liar?

Is he a man with a low opinion of women beyond their sexual promise?

Or is he, most narrowly, but fatally, occasionally imprudent?

I watched the first story and was left with an impression that he should resign, and that he is not above reproach or accusations of dangerous imprudence, as he ought to be as this country's First Law Officer. The cover afforded to him by our cloth-eared Prime Minister is firmly out of syncopation with the cultural drumbeat of our times, and an unfortunate example of the obstinate cleaving to power at-all-costs that makes this government's leadership feel so blunt-instrument, rather than tuned-in to our era (I give you renewable energy vs. coal as an example).

I left the second though, feeling that it had used the first iteration as a jumping board, without justification. There is no revealed scandal that aerated the first story into a really enormous bubble. There was no decisive thrust. The bubble had not been burst. It is an allegation, the truth of which is almost impossible to measure with the judicial and investigative tools we have available today, and which added nothing to the real issues raised by the first story. It was an imprudent journalistic foray that has exposed the ABC to bruising critique, and weakens it's investigative leadership, the holding-to-account of the powerful.

I did wonder though, again, at the levels of sexual assault in our society, about consent, about sex and power, about the corrosive effects of violation on long-lived lives, about remorse and personal reformation, about unhappiness and mental health, and the kind of aloneness that leads to suicide, and I could only feel deep, deep sadness for the primary victim of this awful event, and for her family and friends.

Finally, I was struck not by the question of whether the Attorney was guilty of rape, but by the question of political corruption. This is a man who was charged with shaping the nation's first Federal Independent Commission Against Corruption last year (we already have them at the state level), and who arrived at a formulation that would have excluded oversight of precisely the behaviour he is accused of. Did Porter know that one day his sullied past would reach sunlight, and that his misdeeds would not only not pass the 'pub test' (our version of the Clapham omnibus), but that it would not pass the corruption test?

These are the two most egregious outstanding questions for me out of this affair: First, did Christian Porter's behaviour constitute a level of potential exposure to blackmail or manipulation by bad actors, such as a foreign power? Secondly, was Porter's design of a Federal anti-corruption mechanism calculated to shield his own misdeeds from independent review, a fact which would amount to charges of moral, political, and possibly criminal misconduct?

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