By Phillip Coorey and Michael Pelly originally published in the Australian Financial Review Sep 15, 2021
Cabinet minister Christian Porter could be forced to leave the front bench or reverse a decision to accept help with his legal fees from unknown donors via a blind trust, after Scott Morrison raised concerns about a breach of ministerial standards.
The Prime Minister stopped short of vetoing the donation directly and instead asked his department for advice whether it breached ministerial standards.
“The Prime Minister is taking this matter seriously and has discussed the matter with the Minister today,” Mr Morrison’s office said in a statement.
“The Prime Minister is seeking advice from his department on any implications for the ministerial standards and any actions the Minister must take to ensure that he meets the standards.”
Labor said Mr Morison should act, rather than defer to his departmental secretary Phil Gaetjens, who had previously investigated the sports rorts affairs and who in Mr Morrison’s office had advance knowledge of the Brittany Higgins rape allegations.
“Mr Morrison should do his job, enforce his own ministerial standards and tell Mr Porter to either give the money back, or come clean on who his financial backers are,” said shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus.
Mr Morrison spoke to Mr Porter on Wednesday, and a source said Mr Porter was “considering his options”, including whether to quit the front bench, return the money or disclose the donors, of whose identities he says he is unaware.
Storm of criticism
The issue has attracted a storm of criticism from Labor, the Greens, legal observers and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who called it “a shocking affront to transparency”.
Mr Porter declared on Tuesday that his fees, stemming from personal legal action he launched against the ABC and its journalist Louise Milligan earlier this year, had been partly covered 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,” he wrote in the register of members’ interests.
“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.”
Anthony Whealy, QC, former NSW Supreme Court judge and chairman of the Centre for Public Integrity, said Mr Porter had a fundamental obligation to disclose the source of the donations to the blind trust.
Donors ‘expect favours’
“He must be able to find out who it is, so I can’t understand why he is digging his heels in,” Mr Whealy said.
He said it raised issues about undue influence, because donations usually came with an expectation of a favour in return.
“That’s why voters are entitled to know who contributed [to the blind trust].”
He said not revealing the donors left “the impression that there is a reason – and that it can’t be a good reason”.
“It is something that could well be a subject for a [federal] ICAC, if we had one.”
Mr Dreyfus said the issue raised the potential for conflicts of interest and influence peddling.
“That’s why we have disclosure rules. That’s why members of the public are entitled to know when ministers, and members of Parliament get gifts, who are they getting the gifts from,” he said.
“What if you find out six months or a year in [that] a criminal gave you the money? Or that a foreign country gave you the money, and they put the hooks into you? That’s what this is about.”
Mr Turnbull, who appointed Mr Porter as attorney-general before a bitter falling out, was flabbergasted by the declaration.
“This flies in the face of every principle of transparency and accountability in public life,” he told Radio National.
“I will be even more staggered if the Prime Minister allows this to stand – it is a shocking affront to transparency.”
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