Scott Morrison is seeking legal advice from his department on Christian Porter accepting money for legal fees from a “blind trust”, with questions raised over the ministerial code of conduct as controversy builds over the anonymous donation.
Mr Porter’s listing of the trust on his register of interests, with no detail on who offered the money or how much he received, was slammed across the political spectrum.
Former PM Malcolm Turnbull called it a “shocking affront to transparency”, public integrity and legal experts were left flabbergasted, and Mr Porter could even face a no-confidence motion when Parliament returns next month.
“People should know who set up the trust, the identity of the trustee, and the donors,” said Stephen Charles QC, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal.
“You don’t accept secret sums of money.”
Porter’s legal fees under scrutiny
Mr Porter, who is the Minister for Science, Industry and Technology, and the former attorney-general, disclosed on his parliamentary register of interests that he’d received a “part contribution to the payment” of his legal fees, from a recent defamation lawsuit against the ABC, from “a blind trust known as the Legal Services Trust”.
He claimed he had “no access to information” on the trust’s funding or conduct.
Politicians regularly disclose the value of items they receive, and the identity of the donor, on the register.
Mr Porter didn’t disclose the amount received from the trust, nor any details of the trust’s contributors or operators.
The development sparked outrage among Labor, the Greens and even Mr Turnbull, who promoted Mr Porter to attorney-general during his time as prime minister.
“This flies in the face of every principle of accountability and transparency in public life,” Mr Turnbull told ABC radio on Wednesday.
“I am staggered that Porter thought he could get away with it and I will be even more staggered if the Prime Minister allows this to stand.
“It is so wrong. I’m astonished.”
Labor leader Anthony Albanese called it “unbelievable and absurd”.
“He is someone who is in a position of considerable influence as the Industry Minister. He’s responsible for many hundreds of millions of dollars and billions of dollars of funds being given out for industry,” he said.
Morrison ‘seeking advice’
On Wednesday evening, Mr Morrison’s office said the PM was “taking this matter seriously” and had spoken with Mr Porter.
“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,” a spokesperson said.
The ministerial standards stress ministers must “act at all times to the highest possible standards of probity”.
Labor’s shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus slammed the PM’s response.
“Another farcical ‘inquiry’ by Scott Morrison’s right-hand man follows yet another outrageous scandal in Mr Morrison’s government. This is nothing more than political cover for Scott Morrison,” Mr Dreyfus said.
“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.”
Mr Dreyfus had earlier raised concerns about whether foreign countries or criminals contributed to the trust.
Mr Porter’s office declined to answer questions on how much money the minister accepted from the trust, or how he came in contact with those operating the trust.
A spokesperson instead pointed The New Daily to a previous statement, stating Mr Porter’s disclosure was “in accordance with the requirements of the register and consistent with previous members’ disclosure”.
Greens leader Adam Bandt said he planned to move a motion of no confidence in Mr Porter when Parliament resumes in October.
“Ministers shouldn’t take donations without disclosing who they’re from,” he tweeted.
TND understands other federal politicians are considering options to further dispute Mr Porter’s disclosure, including a referral to Parliament’s Standing Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests, which can hear “complaints about registering or declaring interests”.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young noted that, when she had used crowdfunding donations to finance a legal case of her own, she listed hundreds of donors on her register of interests.
Experts stunned by donation
Mr Charles, a retired judge and a board member with the Centre for Public Integrity and the Accountability Round Table, said he was shocked by the nature of Mr Porter’s disclosure.
“The problem is the secrecy. We have political donation rules,” he told TND.
“You can’t give a large bag of money to a politician without expecting to be in trouble. If the people made their names public, there’d be no complaint.”
Mr Charles said if the same money had been anonymously gifted in a bag of cash, “there would be screaming”.
“That’s what happened here; all someone has done is intervene a blind trust and say it prevents their identity being known,” he said.
“Whoever did it in this way is trying to conceal the identity of the donors. They are people who potentially may want to say in future, ‘we’ve done this huge favour for Mr Porter or the party’.”
Simon Longstaff, executive director at The Ethics Centre, said there was a wider principle at play, and that politicians should aim to be even more transparent than regular citizens.
“This isn’t about whether you trust any particular individual. It’s about probity obligations for all,” Dr Longstaff told TND.
“We’re living in times when those in the political class aren’t particularly well trusted, and the conditions for them being so have been undermined repeatedly by other scandals … if you’re a minister and care about such things, the obligation falls on you to take what could be extraordinary steps to rebuild that trust.
“You’d say ‘I’ll bend over backwards to not undermine trust, to do everything to rebuild it’.”
Both Mr Charles and Dr Longstaff said they believe that if Mr Porter couldn’t confirm who contributed to the trust, he should have declined the money.
Dr Longstaff noted this federal government had increased disclosure and foreign interference reporting obligations on institutions like universities and lobbyists, after raising concerns over influence operations.
“The correct position is to not accept it, particularly when your own government is so concerned about exercise of influence,” Dr Longstaff said.
“If universities said they didn’t have a clue who was giving them money, the government would say that’s not good enough.
“This is what it means to have principles and exercise moral courage, if you volunteer to be in a position of leadership.”