Opinion

John Hewson
Christian Porter and the ‘born to rule’ mentality

A fundamental weakness of our democracy relates to the funding of election campaigns and other financial support of governments, parties and individual members of parliament. This needs to be a fully transparent and accountable process.

The issue is that the funding process, as it currently stands, is corruptible. Voters need to know whether it is possible for private interests to buy influence, such as could result in governments taking initiatives and introducing policies to the particular benefit of those who have supported them financially.

It is critical that donors and supporters are named and the amount they have paid is declared, in as close to real time as possible, so that decisions can be made about their likely influence on government.

The latest funding scandal relates to Christian Porter and his use of a blind trust to receive part funding for his legal fees.

I was particularly surprised that it took so long for Scott Morrison to settle matters relating to Christian Porter.

The issue first arose in February, in relation to a historical rape allegation reported by the ABC. The material on which that report was based had already circulated to several politicians, including the prime minister. Porter was not named but later outed himself. He said the alleged assault never happened – and has continued to strenuously deny the allegation.

It is instructive that Morrison didn’t initially take steps to investigate the matter, relying instead on a quite fallacious argument that claimed the rule of law prevented an inquiry. Porter has finally left the ministry, not because of this affair but because of how he funded his legal action against the ABC.

Porter met the parliamentary requirement to lodge a formal statement of members’ interests, disclosing the funding. In March 2021, he wrote the following: “I commenced defamation proceedings in a purely personal capacity against the ABC and Ms Louise Milligan [NSD 206 of 2021]. On 31 August 2021 this matter was finalised by the court.”

Porter went on to document where the funding had come from: part of it from an out-of-court settlement with the ABC, part pro bono and part from personal funds. He also noted a “contribution to the payment of my fees by a blind trust known as the Legal Services Trust”. He goes on to say that as a “potential beneficiary I have no access to information about the conduct and funding of the trust”.

It is significant that Porter, in his statement of interests, made much of the fact he was acting out of an abundance of caution – and in the interests of transparency. Yet the only caution I can see was in seeking to hide the names of the donors and their donation amounts.

It is also significant that his eventual resignation was over this point; he jumped rather than being pushed because he was unwilling to provide Morrison with the names, so that both he and Morrison could “conclusively rule out a perceived conflict”.

Why didn’t Morrison act? If he’d simply read Porter’s statement, he would have easily recognised Porter’s agenda. You might reasonably ask: Why was Porter so special, so worth protecting?

It is true that he was a rising star of the federal Liberal Party, coming with significant Western Australian state ministerial credentials and experience. In many respects, he was an ideal candidate, but, as has been widely reported, he had “some form” for “bad behaviour”.

Why was this tolerated and why then was he seemingly consistently promoted?

As a lawyer, holding the highest legal office in the land, shouldn’t he have known better than to try it on with a blind trust? And wouldn’t you expect the prime minister to have demanded adherence to the highest standards of ministerial conduct?

Well, no. Scott Morrison remains Scott Morrison. Of course, he claims that he has in fact enforced these standards. In his press conference to announce Porter’s resignation he said, I assume with tongue in cheek: “I am the custodian of the ministerial standards. And, so, I have acted in accordance with those ministerial standards. I take them very seriously. I said this week that I took this matter very seriously. I was not going to make a decision or engage in this issue on the run.”

The prime minister also said: “Ministerial standards set a high mark for both perceived and actual conduct, and particularly in relation to conflicts of interest. All members, when they become ministers, understand that when they sign on and become a member of the cabinet and take on the role in the government’s executive ranks. And all of my ministers seek to uphold those standards at all times. The complex nature, often, of particular arrangements, can sometimes test those standards and their wording and their application in specific circumstances.”

Morrison hung his case on the fact Porter was unable “to practically provide further information because of the nature of those arrangements”. He went on to suggest that, “if he were able to do that, that would allow Minister Porter to conclusively rule out a perceived conflict”. Morrison said in these circumstances Porter had “taken the appropriate course of action to uphold these standards”. So, they hung the whole response on the fact that Porter couldn’t say where the money had come from. That was it.

Even now, Porter is still being encouraged to believe he can come back to the ministry. Barnaby Joyce, the master of the Lazarus act, has said this explicitly. Joyce dismissed Porter’s issues by saying the former attorney-general had done nothing illegal and “has had a bad day at the wicket”.

This completely ignores the morality of the issue. Moreover, speaking as acting prime minister, Joyce’s remarks would have appalled women across our country, aghast at this sort of defence of Porter.

There are still important questions to be answered about the aborted police investigation into the claims against Porter. Recent evidence shows the NSW Police Force received the alleged victim’s full dossier only on the day the probe was terminated. Why was this the case?

My fear is that the defence of the likes of Porter is part of the last vestiges of the so-called “born to rule” mentality. Why was this person feted and promoted? How, through three prime ministers, did he remain the “ideal candidate”? By what measure? What does this say about our democracy and its – and our – standards?

Clearly, Morrison is badly wanting on these Porter issues, following on from the former’s failure to deal with a range of integrity issues, together with his earlier half-hearted cabinet reshuffle that was designed to keep Porter in the ministry. Without a proper investigation, the fundamental problems remain ongoing. In accepting Porter’s resignation, again without waiting for the Gaetjens review, the doubt remains how beholden Porter will be to private interests in the future.

I have always avoided playing the man wherever possible, but this man’s alleged behaviour has raised issues and debate of national significance. All those concerned about the future of our democracy should worry about and debate them. Fundamental to the resilience and sustainability of our democracy is an effective independent national integrity and anti-corruption commission to deal with these issues when governments fail to recognise their responsibility to do so.

It should not be forgotten that with all this political back and forth a woman lost her life. Perhaps this could have been avoided.

I would give Grace Tame the last word on this subject: “Mysterious yet transparent abuse of power. There’s no way $1 million would be unconditional. For the nation’s former highest lawmaker to claim ignorance of their financial aid is as insulting as Scott claiming ignorance of an alleged rape down the hall.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 25, 2021 as "An ideal candidate".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.