Under pressure to reveal the names of those who paid his legal fees, the nation’s former chief law officer Christian Porter has chosen to resign from Federal Cabinet, effective yesterday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison ordered an investigation into the ‘blind trust’ created to pay the former Attorney-General’s legal costs, with a view to determining whether the arrangement contravened ministerial standards.
The code of conduct outlines that ministers “must not seek or accept any kind of benefit or other valuable consideration either for themselves or for others in connection with performing or not performing any element of their official duties as a minister”.
That inquiry appears to have now been halted as a result of Mr Porter’s decision to resign from the front bench.
Donors remain anonymous
Mr Porter, who held the position of Federal Minister for Industry and Science, handed in his resignation from the position after declaring in Parliament last week that he had received funds from the blind trust – a secretive vehicle which empowered those behind it to make decisions about how funds are dispersed.
There is no law which requires trusts to be registered in Australia, and one of the characteristics of a ‘blind trust’ is that it does not leave a paper trail.
The issue therefore became whether Mr Porter should have accepted the money without necessarily having known where it came from.
Over the weekend, the PM asserted his Minister was unable to “conclusively rule out a perceived conflict of interest”, and had as a result had chosen to resign.
Questions remain as to whether Mr Porter did, in fact, know the identity of the person or persons behind the trust and, if so, whether any potentially corrupt quid pro quo arrangements may have been entered in exchange for the money.
Mr Porter keeps the money
Mr Porter will now keep the funds, which were to pay part of his legal costs accrued after launching a defamation case against the ABC and reporter Louise Mulligan who wrote a story about a Federal Cabinet Minister being accused of historical sexual assault.
Mr Porter outed himself as the minister in question only a few days after the story originally appeared, but proceeded to sue the ABC anyway. He then dropped the lawsuit after the ABC agreed to pay the mediation costs and add an editor’s note. The report itself otherwise remains published in its entirety.
Mr Porter’s legal fees have been estimated to be several hundred thousand dollars.
PM backs AG
When the historical rape allegations became public, the Prime Minister backed his Attorney General, offering the convenient yet misguided excuse that the rule of law must prevail to base his decision that there would be no independent inquiry into the allegations.
Mr Morrison then moved Porter from the position of the nation’s highest law officer in the land to the Science and Industry portfolio.
In the wake of Mr Porter’s resignation, Energy Minister Angus Taylor will take responsibility for Mr Porter’s portfolios for the time being.
Mr Porter’s colleagues are divided over Porter’s acceptance of funds, with Finance Minister Simon Birmingham conceding the arrangement was “an unusual one.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, on the other hand, claims the important issue is that Porter did not use taxpayer funds, completely ignoring ministerial rules regarding donations – rules that are designed to reduce the possibility of corruption.
A number of Federal MPs have expressed the view that Australians deserve transparency, leading to renewed calls for a Federal corruption watchdog.
PM describes Porter’s conduct as of the ‘highest standards’
The Prime Minister has told the media that Mr Porter’s resignation “uphold[s] the highest standards” of ministerial conduct – an assertion contested by many.
The fact of the matter is that Porter has benefitted from a significant sum of money, the source of which is unknown, which he accepted while in a high-ranking public position, to fund a private legal matter.
An ‘unwelcome distraction for the government’
In a lengthy statement, Mr Porter insisted his conduct was within the rules but conceded the situation had become an “unhelpful distraction for the government”.
He also said that while he could not identify the individuals who contributed to the trust, he had received assurance from the trustee that “none of the contributors were lobbyists or prohibited foreign entities”.
Mr Porter has confirmed he will recontest his West Australian seat of Pearce, as the Liberal candidate.
As to his resignation from the front bench of Federal Parliament, he states:
“Ultimately, I decided that if I have to make a choice between seeking to pressure the trust to break individuals’ confidentiality in order to remain in Cabinet, or alternatively forgo my Cabinet position, there is only one choice I could, in all conscience, make”.