Response to Grace Tame: allegations are not a conviction

Aug 5, 2021

Earlier this week the Morrison Government announced that Industry Minister Christian Porter would be Acting Leader of the House, a senior parliamentary role, in the absence of Defence Minister Dutton who is in Covid quarantine.  Predictably , the decision to temporarily elevate Mr Porter has led to outrage on social media and a highly critical opinion piece by Australian of the Year Grace Tame in the Nine newspapers.

Ms Tame argues that because Mr Porter has been the subject of an allegation of rape it is insulting to victims of sexual abuse to promote him to what is a functional role in managing government business in the House of Representatives. The allegations are unsubstantiated (because the alleged complainant is sadly deceased). And while politically Mr Morrison’s move to appoint Mr Porter might be foolish, it is the nature of the objection by Ms Tame that is troubling.

According to Ms Tame, if Prime Minister Morrison’s “recent rhetoric about wanting to support assault survivors and protect women’s safety was indeed true, he would surely go to any lengths possible to ensure there was not an accused rapist amongst his own staff. Clearly, it has been nothing but lip service. His actions speak volumes that drown out his every word. And now, not only has Porter been permitted to remain in office, he’s been temporarily elevated. His circumstances are steeped in the protective privileges of a patriarchal Parliament. There is no way this decision was accidental. It is a transparently deliberate, definitive statement that reeks of abuse of power and a blatant disregard of the people.”

To be blunt, Ms Tame’s attitude assumes any person who is alleged to have done something wrong should be cast out of their position into the wilderness.  It also assumes that the mere making of an allegation should be given such weight that, despite the fact it can never be proven one way or the other because of the absence of one of the parties, the person accused of the wrongdoing is not fit to hold any office.

While Ms Tame complains about the “protective privileges of a patriarchal Parliament” she is conveniently and deliberately ignoring fundamental concepts such as the presumption of innocence., the unfairness of taking action against Mr Porter where he is in an impossible position of never being able to clear his name, and the attitude that seems to assume guilt of a person alleged to have committed an act of sexual abuse.

Mr Porter’s politics and conduct as a politician and that of Mr Morrison might not please everyone – certainly this author is no fan of this minister or the government to which he belongs. Nevertheless, Mr Porter is entitled to continue his career because to punish him extra-curially in circumstances where there can be no criminal process or even civil process, is patently unfair and sets a dangerous precedent.

We must stand firm against mindsets which are like a cancer infecting the rule of law in Australia.  The rights of a person accused of wrongdoing, whether they are charged or subject to some other legal fact finding process, must always be respected.  To slide into the sloppy and vindictive thinking of people like Ms Tame is to rip up fundamental rights and to allow trial by popular opinion and its allies in the media.

That Ms Tame is of the view extra curial punishment should be meted out to those who commit, or are alleged to have committed, sexual assaults is also evident in comments in her piece about the travails of the man who sexually assaulted her while she was at school in Hobart.

This man, she notes indignantly, was allowed to attend the University of Tasmania and complete A PhD despite being jailed for his offending, and then jailed again for breaching the conditions of the sex offender register by tastelessly commenting about the conviction on social media.  Neither of this man’s offences were university related.  To stop this man, or any other returning citizen, from getting an education and participating fully in that process, is again dangerous.

As chair of the Prisoners Legal Service in Tasmania this author supported this man who was subjected to vigilantism on the university campus.  That this amounted to extra curial punishment did not seem to worry those who hounded him off campus.  Once again, the idea that punishment through the justice system should not prevent a citizen returning to the community and participating in life, is critical for many reasons, including to protect against mob rule.

None of the criticism of Ms Tame’s views and reasoning should be taken as condoning sexual abuse or offenders not being held accountable for their actions.  But there is a world of difference between the treatment of a person found to have committed such actions and those who are subjected to an allegation which has not, and may never, be proved according to the criminal or civil standard of proof.

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