Former Attorney General, Christian Porter’s tribulations with regard to silencing the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Four Corners and Louise Milligan by attempting to sue them for defamation have been well documented1, but his latest self-inflicted wound also demonstrates the extraordinary hypocrisy of this government.
In his failed defamation suit, Porter incurred significant legal costs, somewhere about the $1 million mark. In his update of the register of member’s interests, he stated that anonymous donors covered some of these legal fees via a “blind trust known as the Legal Services Trust”. He said that he had no way of finding out who the donors were, because, as a potential beneficiary, he did not have access to information about the conduct and funding of the trust2.
Porter later released a statement insisting that he’d followed the rules and, if anything, had been more diligent in doing so than he needed to be out of “an abundance of caution”. As Andrew Street said “nothing says caution like accepting enormous sums of money from people you don’t know”. There has been speculation that it may be someone with very deep pockets, like Nev Power, Twiggy Forrest, Gina Rinehart or Kerry Stokes3.
Porter’s use of the term ‘blind trust’ is odd, given that this term refers to a trust established by the owner (grantor or trustor) giving another party (the trustee) full control of the trust4. The latter has full discretion over the assets and investments while being charged with managing the assets and any income generated in the trust. The trustor can terminate the trust, but otherwise exercises no control over the actions taken within the trust and receives no reports from the trustees while the blind trust is in force. Blind trusts are often established in situations when individuals want to avoid conflicts of interest between their employment and investments. It is often used by wealthy businessmen to avoid accusations of insider trading, or by politicians to avoid accusations of legislating to make money for themselves4,5.
So, in normal terminology, a blind trust would be one set up by Porter to manage his share portfolio and any other such assets, at arm’s length, while he was in office. Therefore, to have money from a blind trust set up, presumably by someone else, to funnel money to Porter while he is in office is effectively the reverse of how the system normally operates. It seems like a ham-fisted effort by Porter arranged solely to avoid scrutiny and keep donations secret.
Due to the outcry over Porter’s accepting this bag of cash from an unknown donor, Porter resigned from the front bench on Sunday, September 19. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, without an awareness of the irony, that Porter could not rule out a perception of a conflict of interest because he could not disclose who his donor was. Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus said “It is no more acceptable for a member of Parliament to keep a donation secret than it is a minister to keep a donation secret. Mr Porter breached the ministerial standards by receiving a secret gift and he is in breach of the standards that apply to members of the Australian parliament”6.
Porter’s three-page resignation letter is a bizarre concoction. Most of the first couple of pages were about the rape allegations and how the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) “unleashed the Twitter version of an angry mob”, and that this mob is so “fierce and vengeful” that they will disparage anyone who says “anything contrary to the narrative of guilt”. While Twitter may be filled with people who suspect Porter is guilty, the fact that the defamation case was withdrawn, the rape allegations that do not seem to have been properly investigated, Porter’s insistence that the ABC defence of the defamation case be sealed, the insistence by Morrison that he did not read the 31 page dossier sent to him and others by the family and friends of the woman who was allegedly raped, and Morrison’s denial of an investigation of any of the accusations, does tend to make the Twitter people suspicious7.
Later in the letter, Porter maintains that thousands of ordinary people contacted him “expressing disgust at what the ABC had done”, and that it was these ordinary people who contributed to a Trust “on the basis of confidentiality”. He also stated that he had no access to the funding or conduct of the trust. However, the trustee (the operator of the trust) informed him that none of the contributors were lobbyists or foreign entities. It would be interesting to find out how the trustee could know that some of the contributors were not operating as a front for lobbyists or foreign entities7. Taking the word of a politician these days is tantamount to stupidity.
Several years ago, Morrison had a Sky News interview about a $1,670 debt incurred by Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, and paid for by a foreign donor. When asked about this, and what Dastyari should say, Morrison replied:
Morrison: ‘I resign’ [from parliament] is what he should say. That’s what he has to say., and he won’t…
Morrison: And he won’t say that, and so Bill Shorten [then opposition leader] must order his walk to the pavilion on this issue. I mean…he…the facts aren’t in dispute, Tom. The facts he has confirmed. He got on the phone, personally, rang a donor, and it happened to be a foreign donor, with links to the Chinese government, and asked for him to clear off one of his debts. Now, that is an extraordinary situation. This isn’t about foreign donations, this is about the third most senior person in the Labor Party in the Senate getting on the phone to a foreign donor and saying ‘I’ve got this debt, can you clear it for me’. Now he must have had quite a level of expectation, as a result of the relationship he has with this individual to presume he would have said yes. I assume it was the first person he called. I don’t know how many others he called before that. That is the issue that is before Mister Dastyari, Senator Dastyari, and more importantly, before Bill Shorten. They just want to sweep this under the carpet, distract attention, say ‘oh, we need to look at foreign donation laws’. That’s Labor’s classic trick. What they have to face up to, is Shanghai Sam got on the phone to a donor and said ‘will you clear my debt?’8
So, someone unknown has cleared Porter’s debt, and there is no way to know who that was. Dastyari resigned from parliament over $1,670, while Porter has resigned his ministerial position, but still sits on the back bench, still claiming a salary of $211,250 per annum9. His ‘cleared’ debt was around about 600 times that of Dastyari’s.
The code of ministerial conduct was signed off by Morrison. In his foreword it states in part: “The Australian people deserve a Government that will act with integrity and in the best interests of the people they serve. Serving the Australian people as Ministers and Assistant Ministers is an honour and comes with expectations to act at all times to the highest possible standards of probity. All Ministers and Assistant Ministers are expected to conduct themselves in line with standards established in this Statement in order to maintain the trust of the Australian people.”10 This government is the most corrupt in living memory, so these statements are laughable in their hypocrisy, as is the ‘resignation’ of Christian Porter, and Morrison’s reaction to it. For Morrison, everything is about what is best for him, and having a by-election in Porter’s seat, given the immolation of the Liberal Party in the recent Western Australian state election, would be unlikely to go the way Morrison would like. Principles can be jettisoned when one’s parliamentary majority could be at risk.