It is a cliché, but sunlight is the greatest disinfectant with a landscape that is bleached with the sun’s glare leaving little hidden from view. People can see a landscape for miles and navigate their way in full knowledge that in general, hazards will be visible.
The situation is a little bit different when there is a shaft of light going through a door left ajar and a torch is shone outside.
Partial illumination is better than nothing, but caution is best exercised when thinking about what might lie outside the reach of the torch’s beam.
This is the situation Christian Porter finds himself following a week during in which the declaration of a blind trust that was set up to pay his legal costs in the exercise of lawfare with the national broadcaster and journalist, Louise Milligan, was let loose into the wild.
Porter’s declaration of the blind trust, which is accompanied by other disclosure related to determination of and payment of legal fees that includes the payment by the ABC of certain legal costs, is fair enough given that he is the beneficiary of funds tipped into it by people that wanted to assist him in paying off his court costs.
“Part contribution to the payment of my fees by a blind trust known as the Legal Services Trust. As a potential beneficiary I have no access to information about the conduct and funding of the trust,” the disclosure by Porter reads.
The problem with this declaration, however, is that the disclosure is a bit like the torch that partially illuminates a space: it invites just as many, if not more, questions than it answers.
Who set it up? Who donated? Is it acceptable to have disclosures on the public record where the donor or donors are not identified from the perspective of accountability? Is it consistent with ministerial standards and appropriate in the context of disclosures made in the register of member’s interests and required by parliament?
Does the use of a blind trust in this circumstance create a precedent for other politicians to accept a similar kind of arrangement in the future in similar or other circumstances?
Each of these questions are undoubtedly buzzing through people’s minds as they try to fill the gaps left by the disclosure Porter placed on the public record. It remains to be seen how many of those questions and, indeed, others get answered either via official channels or by media coverage.
Much of the discussion of the blind trust disclosure has failed to focus on another issue that is equally important.
Parliamentarians as a class of individuals are the custodians or stewards of the legislative process.
They are cogs in the legislative machinery that has created laws that demand of company directors, senior executives, and organisations various degrees of disclosure.
Company directors and senior executives of listed companies, for example, have their remuneration disclosed and they are required where relevant to disclose any transactions that are conducted by the company of which they are director with another entity in which they have an involvement.
These disclosures are required and exist for legitimate reasons because owners of companies deserve to know what their senior employees are getting paid, but these rules are ultimately made by parliament even if various aspects fall within the scope of accounting standards that are disallowable instruments under our legal system.
Politicians should be held to a higher level of transparency – a ‘gold standard’ of transparency if you will – given the power they as a collective have to curtail the liberties of and intrude in the privacy of those they govern irrespective of the soundness of the legislative decision.
The discourse and controversy about a disclosure of a blind trust may have a silver lining if it ultimately results in a deeper reflection about what standards of disclosure people expect of those they entrust with the ability to pass laws that impact all of us.