Labor is urging Christian Porter to stand aside as attorney-general if he cannot perform all of his duties during his defamation case against the ABC.
Mr Porter is seeking aggravated damages over a story published on February 26 headlined: “Scott Morrison, senators and AFP told of historical rape allegation against Cabinet Minister”.
The attorney-general’s lawyers allege the story – which did not name him – was defamatory because it imputed he raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988 and that contributed to her taking her own life.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed Mr Porter would not perform all of his usual duties when he returns from mental health leave on March 31.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus says the job should be handed to someone else in the Morrison government if the legal case means Mr Porter can’t conduct his role in full.
“He should have stood aside some weeks back,” Mr Dreyfus told the ABC on Tuesday.
“It’s not appropriate that there be these serious allegations of sexual assault hanging over the attorney-general of Australia.
“This attorney-general has to establish that he is fit for office, fit for the high office that he holds as the first law officer.”
Labor is continuing calls for an independent inquiry into the allegations, which the government has rejected.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said Mr Morrison could have handled the situation better when it first arose.
“He has created a much more difficult situation for the attorney-general than it needed to be,” she told Sky News.
Mr Morrison told parliament Mr Porter would step back from certain aspects of the role out of an abundance of caution and to avoid any perceptions of a conflict of interest.
“The attorney-general when he returns will not perform certain functions of his office that may relate to the Federal Court or the ABC,” the prime minister said.
The minister identified himself as the subject of the article almost two weeks ago.
His lawyer Rebekah Giles said he was forced to go public after a series of news articles, social media posts and interviews made him “easily identifiable to many Australians”.
The statement of claim lodged in the Federal Court in Sydney says Mr Porter’s character and reputation was gravely injured as a result of the story.
The attorney-general is seeking aggravated damages, costs and removal of the article and related material on the web.
Lawyer Michael Bradley, who represented the alleged victim before she died, believes the defamation action will be a challenging case for Mr Porter.
No date has been set for an initial hearing.