Scott Morrison has rejected growing calls to launch an independent inquiry into a historical rape allegation against his attorney general, Christian Porter, who has proclaimed his innocence.
The prime minister – who spoke to Porter after his televised press conference on Wednesday – said he looked forward to the attorney general resuming his duties after taking a period of leave “to get support to deal with what has obviously been a very traumatic series of events”.
In an emotional press conference in Perth on Wednesday, Porter identified himself as the cabinet minister who had been accused of an alleged historical rape of a 16-year-old girl in 1988 and said 18 times that the events described in the complaint forwarded to the police “didn’t happen”. The woman died last year.
Morrison told reporters on Thursday it “must be a harrowing time for her friends and for her family” but said he could only form a judgment on the matter “based on the report of the police”.
“They are the competent and authorised authorities to make the judgments about any such allegations. And they have made their conclusions. That’s where the matter rests.”
New South Wales police have said there is “insufficient admissible evidence” to continue their investigation. Porter said the NSW police had “never contacted” him about the allegations. The South Australian coroner has directed police in that state to conduct further investigations before he decides whether to hold an inquest.
NSW police issued a lengthy statement on Thursday clarifying how the force had handled the case, beginning with a meeting detectives held with the woman and a friend at Kings Cross police station on 27 February 2020.
Investigators had ongoing contact on at least five occasions with the woman over the next three months, and their primary concern had been “victim care and welfare”.
The woman sent NSW police an email on 23 June 2020 “indicating she no longer felt able to proceed with reporting the matter, citing medical and personal reasons” and that she did not want to proceed with the complaint, according to the police statement.
A detective replied to that email on 24 June, but the following day, South Australian police advised NSW investigators that the woman had died.
“As previously indicated, it was only following the woman’s death that NSW Police came into possession of a personal document purportedly made by the woman sometime prior,” the NSW police statement said.
In an apparent attempt to explain why Porter was not contacted, NSW police said it was common practice in sexual assault cases that a formal allegation was only put to the person of interest “upon all of the available information being obtained (in statement form)”.
Morrison said Porter had “made it very clear in his statement yesterday that he has rejected absolutely the allegations that have been made” and that was “the same rejection that he made to me” when the pair discussed the matter last week.
Although prime ministers are responsible for enforcing ministerial standards, and workplaces routinely launch investigations when claims are made against employees, Morrison said there was “no other alternative for a prime minister than the rule of law”.
He said he did not agree with the calls to launch an inquiry of some form, because “that would say that our rule of law and our police are not competent to deal with these issues”.
“There is not some other process. There is not the mob process. There is not the tribe-has-spoken process. That’s not how we run the rule of law in Australia.”
Earlier the deputy Liberal leader, Josh Frydenberg, backed Porter but Labor has warned that that question of whether the attorney general should remain in his cabinet post has not been put to rest.
On Thursday Frydenberg rebuffed calls for an independent inquiry from the alleged victim’s lawyer, the Greens, independents including Zali Steggall and Labor, stating that Porter was entitled to the presumption of innocence.
On Thursday Labor’s leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, told Radio National there had been “serious, credible allegations about our attorney general” and people were “reasonably asking if they can have confidence” in him.
The senator agreed with Porter that “trial by media” was not appropriate but argued “unless there is some form of investigation, some form of process that gives Australians … confidence in the first law officer, these questions will continue”.
“I think there has to be [an inquiry],” she said, adding: “There has to be some form of inquiry or other process to give people the assurance Mr Porter is a fit and proper person to be in cabinet.”
Wong called on Morrison to “stop looking at this as an issue of glib political management” and to “show some leadership”. She criticised the prime minister for failing to read the letter and the attached statement from the alleged victim that were sent to him.
Wong rejected Porter’s defence that his case is similar to that Bill Shorten, who was accused of a historical rape, denied it and was investigated by Victoria police, who decided not to take the matter further.
“Mr Shorten cooperated with the police, he answered questions, he waived any right against self-incrimination and cooperated fully. Instead, [here] we have an attorney general who claims he hasn’t even seen the allegations.”
Frydenberg told ABC News Breakfast that it was “up to the police to ascertain the veracity of the facts” in Porter’s case.
He noted Porter’s “emphatic denial”: “He’s entitled to the presumption of innocence as any citizen is entitled to and he has the prime minister’s support and he has my support.”
The former prime minister John Howard has also backed Morrison and Porter’s handling of the “very sensitive matters”.
Howard told 2GB Radio the criminal justice system included a presumption of innocence and designated the police as the authority to investigate criminal complaints.
Despite the backing of fellow Liberals, calls for an independent inquiry have come from across the political spectrum.
The former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce suggested it could end “demeaning” speculation. “I believe some form of external inquiry would be a vastly better alternative than what we’re seeing,” he told the ABC.
The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, argued that if Morrison hadn’t read the letter containing the accusation “an independent inquiry should”.
On Wednesday the independent MP Steggall said the prime minister “should call for an independent investigation into these allegations by a retired prominent judge, for example”.
“We know the police investigation was hamstrung by the unfortunate circumstances in relation to the complainant,” she told ABC’s 7.30. “So the reality is this hasn’t really been investigated. And I think the public deserve to know.”
• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. International helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org.