Prime minister Scott Morrison has defended the government’s decision to block an inquiry into Christian Porter’s declaration of funds from a “blind trust” for his defamation case, arguing it would be better to “get those rules very clear for everybody”.
On Wednesday the Coalition used its majority in the House of Representatives to vote down a Labor push to refer Porter to the privileges committee to determine whether his declaration complied with relevant disclosure rules, despite the speaker, Tony Smith, finding there was a “prima facie case” to investigate.
But the government’s procedural victory is unlikely to be the end of the matter.
The privileges committee is now considering the rules on disclosing donations to cover legal fees, after Peter Dutton, the leader of the house, claimed other members had accepted crowdsourced funds for defamation cases.
The committee has not ruled out making findings against individual MPs after the shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, separately wrote to the committee on Monday seeking an investigation of Porter.
On Thursday, members of the government including the assistant attorney general, Amanda Stoker, argued it had thwarted a “witch hunt” into Porter in favour of a more general inquiry, although senator Andrew Bragg went further by arguing the current rules were not working and there was “too much scope for concealing information”.
In September, Porter declared that the Legal Services Trust had part-paid his legal fees arising from his private defamation case against the ABC. The former attorney general said as a “potential beneficiary” of the blind trust he had no access to information about the source of the funds.
On Monday, Labor moved to refer Porter to the privileges committee to investigate a possible breach of disclosure rules. Porter denies breaking the rules.
The leader of the house, Peter Dutton, has asked the committee to consider clarifying the rules around disclosure of donations for legal cases, a request that could encompass consideration of how members are interpreting the rules but does not ask for a ruling on Porter.
Peter Dutton has asked the privileges committee to clarify the rules about declaration of donations for legal funds - but it's no inquiry, and no substitute for a referral into Porter's declaration.#auspol pic.twitter.com/ciG4VC8wc5
— Paul Karp (@Paul_Karp) October 20, 2021
The committee held its weekly meeting on Wednesday night and will continue deliberations on the issue into next week.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said the issue “will continue to fester and be a sore on the political landscape” because the government had blocked a direct inquiry into Porter.
“You can’t have a circumstance whereby a member of parliament can receive anonymous donations for a private matter of up to $1m and not have it declared,” he told ABC Radio.
“If this is allowed to stand, then the register of pecuniary interests, which is there as a major anti-corruption vehicle, may as well be abolished.”
On Thursday, crossbench senator Jacqui Lambie said that receipt of funds from an unidentified source is “a brown paper bag job”.
The comments echo former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull’s analogy of the disclosure as like declaring “my legal fees were paid by a guy in a mask who dropped off a chaff bag full of cash”.
Lambie told Channel Nine Porter should disclose “who gave [him] the money”. “We need to know. Because quite frankly, it is really politically dangerous, and once again I’ve had a gutful … Let’s call it out for what it is … it is absolutely disgusting.”
“If you want someone to pay your legal fees, then say who has done it. We have no idea who it is, we have no idea whether it is a conflict of interest in politics, nothing.”
Morrison told Channel Nine the government had referred “this broader issue of these crowdsourcing funding arrangements”, arguing that other members of parliament had funded their legal cases with “these arrangements”.
Morrison said the request would “ensure that [members] can get some clear rules when politicians are defamed and how they can actually defend themselves”.
The prime minister accused Labor of seeking a “political trial” and to “play politics with it”.
Stoker told Sky News the Dutton request will ensure there is “a clear position that will apply equally to all people whatever their political colours”.
Stoker agreed there should be “transparency in all things” and denied that the government blocking the Porter referral would give a green light for secret donations.
“I don’t think anybody would regard secret political donations as something that’s acceptable,” she said, before distinguishing donations for electoral purposes from those for a private legal bill.
Bragg told the ABC he didn’t think the pecuniary interest disclosure rules “are working in the way that they should”.
“I think that there is frankly too much scope for concealing information, and I think that we should have a review of the pecuniary interest standards.”
“I think, frankly, in some cases you could drive a truck through them.”
Porter maintains that he has properly disclosed his interests in accordance with both the rules and the ministerial standards, but resigned as a minister in September on the basis the issue had become an “unhelpful distraction” for the government.
On the day he resigned, Porter said in a statement he was “not willing to put pressure on the trust to provide me with any further information … to which I am not entitled”.
Porter said that he did not want to expose people who donated to the trust to “become targets of the social media mob”, deciding to relinquish his cabinet position instead of “seeking to pressure the trust to break individuals’ confidentiality”.
Smith noted on Wednesday that his conclusion there was a “prima facie case” against Porter “does not imply a conclusion that a breach of privilege or contempt has occurred”.