Christian Porter’s future as Attorney-General is in further jeopardy as the Prime Minister flagged “further decisions” on whether the allegations against him may fall foul of the government’s ministerial standards.
It came as ABC managing director David Anderson gave a strident defence of the broadcaster’s reporting on Mr Porter, in the face of a pending blockbuster defamation case, saying its journalism was “in the public interest”.
Mr Porter, who denies claims he raped a woman in 1988, has been on mental health leave since outing himself as the person at the centre of the allegations.
He returns to work next week, but Labor has used Senate Estimates to turn up the pressure on him, and claim his lawsuit against the ABC meant he was “hopelessly conflicted” and should not return to his high-powered position as the nation’s first law officer.
Last week, Mr Porter started defamation proceedings against the ABC and the investigative journalist Louise Milligan in the Federal Court to fight “false allegations against him in relation to a person who he met when he was a teenager”.
Mr Anderson told a Senate Estimates committee on Tuesday the ABC would vigorously defend the defamation action, and would prove the ABC had acted properly and fairly at all times.
“I am confident that the journalism was of the highest quality and that this will be borne out in the court proceedings,” Mr Anderson said.
“The ABC has acted in accordance with its statutory obligations of impartiality and its charter in its reporting, which has always reflected that Porter is entitled to a presumption of innocence.”
He said the ABC was careful not to name the cabinet minister when it broke the online story about a letter detailing the rape allegation on February 26.
In Mr Porter’s statement of claim, he argues the ABC’s online article contained a number of defamatory imputations, including that he raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988 when he was 17 and that he is “reasonably suspected” by NSW police of having done so.
Sexual harassment report delays
Mr Porter’s conduct separately came under further scrutiny when the Attorney-General’s department revealed it had not met with him on a crucial sexual harassment report, more than a year after it landed on his desk.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins filed the Respect@Work report into sexual harassment with him on January 29 last year.
The inquiry was launched in response to allegations of sexual misconduct in Australian workplaces.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison conceded action on Ms Jenkins’ report “should have been done well before this time”.
Facing questions about Mr Porter’s future on Tuesday, the PM said he had received advice about the next appropriate steps from the Solicitor-General, the nation’s second law officer.
“I will be making further decisions on that matter and I will alert you to those when they are made,” Mr Morrison told reporters.
Labor says Mr Porter unfit to continue
Labor claims the allegations against Mr Porter, combined with his pending legal action, make it inappropriate for him to retain almost all of his portfolio.
“The Prime Minister now has no other option but to stand Christian Porter aside,” Labor’s shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said on Tuesday.
In estimates on Tuesday morning, Labor pursued the very many areas of his portfolio that are possible conflicts of interests should Mr Porter return as Attorney-General.
Senator Murray Watt listed Mr Porter’s portfolio responsibilities including the administration of criminal justice, issuing ASIO warrants, courts and tribunals.
“There’s barely any role that Mr Porter is not conflicted from. How can he remain as Attorney-General?” the Opposition frontbencher said.
“How is it possibly tenable for Mr Porter to remain as Attorney-General of this country when he has such serious clouds to perform most of his duties?”
Acting Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said the Prime Minister would carefully consider the Solicitor-General’s advice.
Under sustained questioning, Senator Cash continually referred to the legal advice and promised Mr Morrison would respond appropriately.