Christian Porter’s use of a blind trust to pay for legal fees has escaped examination over whether it breaches Parliament’s rules despite Speaker Tony Smith saying there was a case to be investigated.
In an unprecedented move, the government opposed a motion to refer Mr Porter to the lower house’s privileges committee after Mr Smith ruled there was a prima facie case for the referral.
Parliament’s privileges committee will not investigate whether Christian Porter correctly declared the anonymous donations he received for legal fees in his defamation case against the ABC.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
In September, Mr Porter revealed part of his legal fees for the defamation action he took against the ABC had been paid from a blind trust known as the “Legal Services Trust” and that he did not know who had contributed to it. Mr Porter resigned from cabinet after Prime Minister Scott Morrison sought advice over whether the move also breached ministerial standards.
The Speaker examined the former attorney-general’s declaration of interests, the rules about pecuniary interests and the purpose register to put on the public record members’ interests that may conflict or may be seen to conflict with their public duty.
“Based on my careful consideration of all of the information available to me, I am satisfied that a prima facie case has been made out,” Mr Smith said.
Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke on Wednesday labelled the blind trust a “brown paper bag stitched up by lawyers” in Parliament.
Unless the privileges committee ruled on the matter, “any member of this House could then set up a blind trust and have whatever income they want to go into it, receive income and then say oh it’s a blind trust, don’t know where the money came from”, he said.
But Mr Burke said the motion to refer the matter to the committee wasn’t a judgement about what Mr Porter has done.
“Now, the privileges committee might come back with an answer I don’t expect. That’s on them,” he said.
“But it would be the cover-up to end all cover-ups if this House prevents the privileges committee from even being able to look at this resolution before us.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison in discussion with Speaker Tony Smith.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Leader of the House Peter Dutton formally opposed the motion, before it was voted down 52-49.
However, he told Parliament he wrote to committee chair Russell Broadbent on Monday asking for a broader examination of the issue of crowdfunding and similar methods of raising donations.
Mr Dutton used the example of a Go Fund Me page Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young used to raise money for the defamation action she took against former senator David Leyonhjelm. He pointed out a number of donors who gave names that appeared to be false, such as A.Non, John51884010, and Buzz Rainbow Wolf.
“I think this gives rise to a much bigger issue, a much bigger issue in relation to Members of Parliament,” he said.
Mr Dutton’s letter asks the committee to “clarify for the benefit of all members” what declaration is required on contributions received for legal fees from a third party, including through crowdfunding and from political parties, and any other contributions from third parties.
This wouldn’t be as strong as the formal request of the Parliament to examine whether Mr Porter breached privilege rules, which had the potential to lead to sanctions.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, who steered the lower house through the minority Parliament of the Gillard years, said it was extraordinary the government would consider rejecting a recommendation from the Speaker.
“Since Federation … there has never been a time where the House has voted down a resolution after precedence was given – in more than 120 years that has never occurred,” he said.
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