Anthony Albanese has said a historical rape allegation against a current cabinet minister is a “test” for Scott Morrison, who must satisfy himself it is appropriate for the man to continue in his current position.
While agreeing that police were best to investigate the complaint of sexual assault, which allegedly occurred in 1988, the Labor leader argued on Sunday that Morrison must separately “assure himself … the current make-up of the cabinet can continue”.
The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, has gone further by urging an independent inquiry into the allegation, citing the nationally significant “position of the accused” and the potential difficulties of bringing a prosecution.
The prime minister has so far rebuffed the calls, with his office instead stressing that the ministerial standards only require a minister to step aside if they become “the subject of an official investigation of alleged illegal or improper conduct”.
The allegation was first revealed by ABC’s Four Corners on Friday, after Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, and Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young confirmed they had received a letter attaching the complaint from a woman, who took her own life in July, and had forwarded it to police.
The government is also under pressure over the lack of independence of its review into the alleged rape of staffer Brittany Higgins in Linda Reynolds’ office. The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, has said that the defence minister is keen to return to work and that she retains Morrison’s confidence, despite failing to inform him of the allegation.
Albanese told ABC’s Insiders that the allegation of sexual assault against a cabinet minister should be investigated by authorities but will nevertheless be “a dark cloud over the parliament and the cabinet”.
Albanese said that Wong, who met the complainant in November 2019, had “acted appropriately” by facilitating her access to rape support services and checking that she had the support to report the allegation to police. Wong also contacted the South Australian police to offer assistance to the coronial investigation after the complainant’s death in July.
Albanese expressed sympathy to the family and friends of the woman. “This is a tragedy and the current debate and us discussing it would be adding to the hurt of those people,” he said.
“We need to make sure that – these are serious allegations – that they are investigated appropriately and that these issues aren’t politically managed.
“This is a real test, and the prime minister must confirm to himself that it remains the case that the minister, who is the subject of these allegations, that it’s appropriate for him to stay in his current position.”
Albanese said he was not seeking to politicise the issue, but the Australian people would be seeking “common decency to shine through here” and a resolution to the issue. “This can’t just stay in the current position where it is.”
Albanese refused to say how he would handle a similar allegation against a Labor frontbencher, arguing that this was a hypothetical.
The handling of the Higgins complaint showed the need for “proper processes for reporting” in parliament, “including the capacity to report issues independently at arm’s length from the people who are responsible for managing offices”, he said.
Albanese said it was an “absurdity” that the prime minister’s office’s handling of the Higgins complaint is being conducted by the departmental secretary, Phil Gaetjens, Morrison’s former chief of staff.
In a statement, Bandt said the rape allegation against a cabinet minister was “extremely serious and shocking” and “should be investigated to the fullest possible extent”.
The circumstances of this case and the potential difficulties of prosecuting the matter mean the prime minister cannot wait for the police investigation alone,” he said, calling for a separate “independent inquiry to determine whether this minister is fit to be in his cabinet”.
“If the prime minister doesn’t at least stand this man aside while he conducts his own inquiry, then he’s sending the terrible message there is space in his cabinet for someone with an unresolved rape accusation.”
On Friday a spokesperson for the prime minister referred to the AFP advice that “reporting to the police is the way to ensure any alleged crimes are properly investigated”.
They declined to answer further questions about the historical rape allegation, citing AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw’s warning that “choosing to communicate or disseminate allegations via other means, such as through the media or third parties, risks prejudicing any subsequent police investigation”.