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Imagine if Tony Abbott had been accused of rape ...

Date
Shorten is kidding himself if he thinks he could have kept this to himself.

Shorten is kidding himself if he thinks he could have kept this to himself. Photo: Angela Wylie

Being a public figure isn't always easy, as Bill Shorten's recent experience highlights. Apparently his ascension to the position of Leader of the Opposition stirred someone to make an allegation that she was raped by him some 25 years ago when he was 19.

The matter was investigated by police and referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. That office concluded there was insufficient evidence to warrant a prosecution. These are commonly used words that unfortunately leave some doubt in people's minds. It is not really fair because we assume you are innocent until proven guilty, but after an investigation these words leave doubt. The trouble is the investigating team can't act as judge or jury and declare guilt or lack thereof. All they can do is say that there is insufficient evidence to procure a prosecution. It is a messy and regrettable flaw in our system.

Allegations of rape can in many cases be extraordinarily difficult for the police to investigate. As Sir William Deane once pointed out, the notion that rape is an easy claim to make is simply ludicrous. Equally, it can be an extraordinarily difficult claim to disprove. It is a very blasé person who sits idly by when circumstances come about which allow them to appear as though they might be guilty.

As offensive as it seems, some complainants turn out to be complete liars who fabricate their stories. Others may believe that there was no consent but feel unable to face the consequences of raising their complaint with the police – or perhaps, for whatever reason, after many years, decide to pursue their case. Others may have consented at the time and, facing subsequent regret, again for whatever reason, decide to raise a complaint. In any event it cannot be an easy decision.

There will be cases where consent, or lack thereof, will be clear on the evidence. Regrettably, in others cases it is an extremely difficult issue. The passage of time makes any investigation or prosecution even more difficult. It is even harder for the accused.

Shorten is kidding himself if he thinks he could have kept this to himself. I think his claim that "I could have … but that's not who I am" makes him look a bit silly because nobody I know in politics thinks keeping this under wraps was an option. Indeed, silly might not be the right word. It looks as though, even under the pressure such an investigation and consequent announcement would bring, he was still thinking of how to make himself look good. Let's face it, he's a hustler.

Hindsight is a great thing. Perhaps his advisers would now say a better comment from him would have embodied a manly facing of the stark reality. Something like, "Being a public figure has a price and part of that is that we can't always choose what part of our lives remain out of the public domain. Politics and the media being what they are, I think it best to tell you now, at a time of my choosing rather than at a time chosen by others, that …" Still, it's too late for that reality check now.

There has been a good deal of restraint exercised by both the media and members of Parliament in the lead-up to and since Shorten's wise announcement. It stands in something of a contrast to the frenzy surrounding the apparent revelation that many years ago Tony Abbott had punched a wall very near a woman's face.

That contrast invites us all to speculate what would happen if a similar complaint as was made against Shorten were made against Abbott.

I think I know what would happen: The handbag hit squad would be out there fanning the fires with every bit of hatred they could muster. Does anyone seriously think the media commentary would be as restrained? Even if you backdate the question to when Abbott was opposition leader, you still get the same answer.

Courts have rules of evidence, for very good reason. These rules have been developed over many years and are designed to ensure that judges and juries make the fairest decision possible. The problem is neither we, nor the media, follow any such rules. That means that bits and pieces of information about each of us – parts of the story when there might be many versions, often completely untested – are passed on every day. In normal daily life we call it gossip.

Sadly, some investigative journalists get away with being paid to publish this sort of stuff, irrespective of whether innocent people are damaged along the way. They would say they are only doing their job, working to shine a light on bad things that do happen. When they do in fact shine that light and wrongdoers get their due, we should all cheer. The trouble is that often, in digging to find the dirt and shine the light, they chuck a fair bit of mud.

Shorten has had a rough time of it. He can be grateful for the decency shown all around. Perhaps he will insist the same courtesies are extended by his team on future occasions. But don't hold your breath.

Amanda Vanstone is a columnist for The Age and was a minister in the Howard government.

342 comments so far

  • Why does every thing turn into a bleat about the world being unfair to poor Tony Abbott?

    Commenter
    Whyalla Wipeout
    Date and time
    September 01, 2014, 12:40AM
    • We had to endure 3 years of misogyny as a cover for incompetency.

      Commenter
      Piped Piper
      Date and time
      September 01, 2014, 6:15AM
    • If only the media had shone a light on Kevin Rudd's stint as Dr Death - he may never have got within an inch of the lodge.

      Commenter
      Uncle Quentin
      Date and time
      September 01, 2014, 6:22AM
    • Shorten deserves the presumption of innocence. But a couple of things stand out: When those 35 year old allegations dating back to the university days came out about Abbott, the handbag hit squad and accomplices were the first to lay the boot in and fan the flames.

      Secondly, given this issue popped up a couple of weeks ago, it was pretty ballsy of Shorten to then quickly return to the personality politics and attacks on both Abbott and Hockey. Most of us would engage in a little humility and take the spotlight off ourselves.

      Not Bill though - went the all out attack. Some shades of Gillard for sure.

      Commenter
      Hacka
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      September 01, 2014, 6:38AM
    • G'day WW - lovely to hear from you. It's been a while.
      Apropos the allegations regarding Bill Shorten:
      Everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence - Shorten or Abbott, or anyone else. It is entirely appropriate that the allegations against Shorten have been left to wither.
      However, when something like this appears, if it involves a public figure from the 'other' (you know, the 'dark') side of the political fence, some people will inevitably attempt to make mischief with political malice in mind - don't ever expect that to stop.
      All we can do is try to stick to the known facts - and ignore the vindictive slurs as best we can.

      Commenter
      Howe Synnott
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      September 01, 2014, 6:39AM
    • Because that's all they've got. I'm so sick of LNP sympathisers using the term handbag hit squad.

      I'm a female and I don't like Tony Abbott's views on many women's issues. But apparently when I voice my opinion I'm suddenly part of this so called squad.

      Frankly, I'm sick of my opinions being so easily disregarded by the right. I am a woman who dislikes Abbott and has strong feelings in opposition to those Mr Abbott holds on many women's issues.

      I am not part of a "squad".

      Cop yourself on, Amanda.

      Commenter
      Woman who is OVER IT!
      Date and time
      September 01, 2014, 6:58AM
    • Jofek - your comments makes me wonder if you've forgotten the entire Gillard years and the torrent of baseless personal attacks on our current Prime Minister to deflect from a dysfunctional government.

      The same standards should apply to both sides of politics. Labor really should let the Greens occupy the low road all by themselves and Bill should try to maintain some sense of national objectivity on major issues like national security and fiscal repair.

      By the way - your word of the day seems to be "corroborated". But you might want to look up the meaning of is as your use of it was factually incorrect, or your recollection of history was. As was Get Real's comment.

      Commenter
      Hacka
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      September 01, 2014, 7:20AM
    • Paid piper
      There was no cover. He is both a misogynist and incompetent.

      Commenter
      Steve
      Date and time
      September 01, 2014, 7:22AM
    • You may not be part of the SQUAD but you presume that what is said about Tony Abbots Opinion its true. Without him ever having stated any of the things you believe true !!

      Commenter
      BigTedd
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      September 01, 2014, 7:26AM
    • You can see how desperate the LNP and supporters are becoming.

      Commenter
      Joe Citizen
      Location
      Melb
      Date and time
      September 01, 2014, 7:30AM

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