By Paul Karp, originally published in the Guardian, 14 September 2021.
Christian Porter has revealed that part of his defamation legal fees were paid by a blind trust with funds from an unknown source.
The industry and science minister updated his register of interests on Monday, revealing that the Legal Services Trust had paid part of the fees for the now discontinued defamation case.
In the declaration, Porter claimed that as he is a potential beneficiary he had “no access to information about the conduct and funding of the trust”. Unlike companies, there is no requirement to register a trust in Australia, meaning details including beneficiaries, trustees and revenues are not publicly available. It is not clear how much of Porter’s legal fees were paid by the trust.
Porter sued the ABC and Louise Milligan over an online article that alleged an unidentified cabinet minister had been accused of rape in January 1988 in a dossier sent to Scott Morrison and three other parliamentarians. Porter subsequently identified himself as the minister and strenuously denied the allegations.
Porter has repeatedly refused to guarantee he would fund the entire cost of the case himself, and in May declined to rule out plans for a supporter to pick up the bill.
In late May, Porter agreed to discontinue the case, after the ABC agreed to add an editor’s note to the article stating that it did not intend to suggest Porter had committed the alleged offence, and that “both parties accept that some readers misinterpreted the article as an accusation of guilt against Mr Porter. That reading, which was not intended by the ABC, is regretted.”
The ABC also agreed to pay Porter’s costs of mediation, but no damages.
In changes to his register of interests, registered on Tuesday, Porter declared additional sources of funding for the court case as an “other interest”.
Porter said he had brought the case, which was finalised on 31 August, and incurred costs “in a purely personal capacity”.
But “out of an abundance of caution” and consistent with other parliamentarians’ practice Porter advised “the following contributions have recently or may shortly be made”:
- An amount paid by the ABC to his lawyers, Company Giles, and applied to his account
- “Part contribution to the payment of my fees by a blind trust known as the Legal Services Trust. As a potential beneficiary I have no access to information about the conduct and funding of the trust.”
- Barrister Sue Chrysanthou, although engaged on a commercial fee arrangement, “did not charge me for all of the time she spent on the matter” and some services were provided “on a reduced fee basis”.
“Although all of the above contributions were made to me, or were for my benefit, in a purely personal capacity, in the interest of transparency and out of an abundance of caution I make this disclosure pursuant to item 14 of the register of members’ interest,” Porter said.
Item 14 requires members to declare “any other interests where a conflict of interest with a member’s public duties could foreseeably arise or be seen to arise”or “holds the potential for a real or apparent conflict of interest with a member’s public duties to arise”.
The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, called on Scott Morrison to “immediately demand Mr Porter come clean about who his donors are”.
“The Australian people need to know who set this trust up, who funded it, how much they donated,” Dreyfus said in a statement.
“If Mr Porter genuinely doesn’t know who his donors are he shouldn’t accept their money.”
The Centre for Public Integrity said anonymous contributions to politicians, in any form, should not be allowed.
“Hidden money is a huge problem for our democracy,” the centre’s executive director, Han Aulby, said.
“Voters need to know whose interests are being taken into account.”
A spokesman for Porter said he had undertaken disclosure in accordance with the requirements of the register, but declined to say how much of Porter’s fees were covered.
“No taxpayers’ funds were used in meeting the costs of the minister’s actions against the ABC and Milligan, which have now concluded,” he said.
In March, a spokesperson for Porter declined to answer questions from Guardian Australia about whether he was receiving any financial support for the case and Porter similarly deflected questions from news.com.au in May about whether he had a millionaire benefactor.
At the time, the deputy clerk, Peter Banson, told Guardian Australia a member may be required to register legal fees paid on their behalf as a gift “but only once it has been received or realised”.
Asked at a doorstop in May if he had an understanding someone would pay his legal bills, Porter replied: “If there’s anything that requires disclosure … I’ll be doing that as and when the need arises.”
Porter has suggested he will recontest his seat of Pearce, although Labor’s rising popularity in Western Australia has made the usually safe seat, with a 7.5% margin, a potential target.
In May, Porter told Sky News he was “absolutely committed” to the government and it had “never occurred to me to not be a part of that going on because I think I have something to offer as part of that government”.
“I’m completely committed to my electorate – I am completely committed to the government,” he said, without directly confirming he would seek re-election.