By Nick Bonyhady originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald September 19, 2021
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has said the government expects ministers to follow the “letter and spirit” of its code of conduct as the Prime Minister waits for advice on whether the standards have been breached by frontbencher Christian Porter’s decision to accept money from ultimately unknown sources.
But Senator Birmingham repeatedly declined to give his personal view of if he would accept money from anonymous sources, saying his job as minister was to represent the government.
“I’m not going to go into personal opinions,” Senator Birmingham said. “The ministerial code is, I think, clear in relation to the fact that we need to undertake a range of different disclosures. The Prime Minister has rightly sought proper advice on that and I expect that he will receive that and will act upon it.”
“We should all act in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the ministerial code of conduct.”
Mr Porter, the Industry Minister, has come under fire from Labor, the Greens, and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull because of his declaration that an undisclosed portion of his costs in a defamation case with the ABC over rape allegations were paid for by unknown donors via an entity called the Legal Services Trust.
In an update to his register of interests last week, Mr Porter said: “as a potential beneficiary I have no access to information about the conduct and funding of the trust.”
He had sued the ABC over a story he said accused him of raping a debating teammate in 1988, which Mr Porter vehemently denied. The case settled with the ABC appending a note to its story saying it did not intend to suggest Mr Porter “had committed the criminal offences alleged” and regretted some readers had interpreted it that way. However, the ABC did not retract the story or apologise for it. It made a $100,000 contribution to Mr Porter’s legal fees for mediation and related costs, though his total bill was likely many times that given the ABC spent $780,000 to defend the matter, including the payment.
On the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday, Senator Birmingham said Mr Porter’s disclosure was an “unusual one” that presented other questions. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declined to make any decisions about Mr Porter’s future in cabinet while he waits for advice from his department.
A spokesman for Mr Porter has previously said he had disclosed the information in accordance with the rules of the register and no taxpayer funds were used on the litigation against the ABC.
“His decision to even contemplate accepting this money demonstrates appalling judgment. How does he know the money doesn’t come from a malignant source?,” Mr Watson said.
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