A mystery contribution to help cover the costs of the federal politician’s personal legal claim has forced Porter to give up his position as minister for industry, science and technology.
Prime minister Scott Morrison announced he had accepted Porter’s resignation from cabinet to the backbench on Sunday, citing that the often complex nature of ‘particular arrangements’ sometimes tested the high ministerial standards of government.
“[Christian Porter] has this afternoon taken the appropriate course of action to uphold those standards by tendering his resignation as a minister, and I have accepted his resignation,” Morrison said, underscoring that this decision was not about ‘actual conflicts’ of interest but to avoid any perception of them.
“His actions have been about upholding the standards. Our discussions today were about upholding those standards. We each believe they’re incredibly important. And it isn’t just about actual conflicts,” he said.
The existence of Porter’s blind trust — known as the Legal Services Trust — was made public on last week when he updated his members’ interests register to note the ‘part contribution’ of the blind trust to cover his legal fees. A mere two sentences in Porter’s disclosure document simply read:
“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.”
Because of the nature of the trust, intentionally structured to conceal the identity of any person contributing to it, critics labelled Porter’s disclosure as anything but.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the declaration was a disgrace and ‘an abuse of office’. He said it was unacceptable that a declaration about payment of money to a serving parliamentarian should redact specific information like how much was donated, who the donors were, and what – if anything – they received in exchange for the money.
“The Australian people need to know who set this trust up, who funded it, how much they donated, and whether they expected to get anything in return for these donations,” Dreyfus said.
“The Australian people deserve immediate answers to these questions.”
Porter commenced legal proceedings for his defamation suit against the ABC and journalist Louise Milligan earlier this year over an article it had published in February about a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, which contained historical rape allegations against a senior cabinet minister. Although he was not named, the article was about Porter, who was then serving as the Commonwealth Attorney-General.
Not long after it was revealed that it was Porter who the article was written about, he was demoted from his role as Australia’s first law officer in a cabinet reshuffle that saw him go from Attorney General to industry, science, energy and resources minister.
Following his cabinet resignation over the weekend, Porter is now a serving backbencher in Morrison’s LNP government.
In a three-page statement issued on Sunday, Porter maintained his innocence regarding the historical sex abuse allegation and said media reporting on the matter had ‘created a new standard under which literally any Australian can be subject of an accusation widely published, and without due process and fairness, be tried and judged in a trial by media’.
He went on to say that thousands of Australian voters contacted him to share their ‘disgust’ about the manner in which the ABC published the story, whose support moved Porter to commence his defamation action against the public broadcaster.
“Some people wanted to help in that course by supporting my defamation case,” Porter said.
“They contributed to the [blind] trust on the basis of confidentiality and a belief that their contribution would remain confidential within the rules of disclosure.
“Whilst I have no right of access to the funding or conduct of the trust, on my request the trustee provided me [with] an assurance that none of the contributors were lobbyists or foreign entities.”
The defamation matter was dropped by Porter in May, with an agreement that no damages would be paid and no apology made, but costs of mediation were covered by the ABC.
The federal backbencher said that his assumption most of the trust contributors ‘were driven by a natural desire to avoid the inevitable fact that for supporting me, the trial by mob would inevitably turn on them if they were identified’ likely led those individuals to regard the blind trust as a way to safeguard their anonymity.
Christian Porter has just released a 1600-word statement on his resignation
says he was "not willing to put pressure on the Trust to provide me with any further information" on donors, claiming it would make them "targets of the social media mob" pic.twitter.com/OFShiMJaWD
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) September 19, 2021
In his statement, he also underscored his view that he had met disclosure requirements according to the relevant standards but accepted, after speaking with Morrison, that the lack of detail surrounding the blind trust created an ‘unhelpful distraction for the government in its work’. Given Porter was unprepared to ‘pressure’ the trust to provide information he says he was not entitled to, he explained he was prepared to forgo his cabinet position.
“I understand the questions raised in the media about the financial arrangements to help fund the now settled litigation,” Porter said.
“But I consider that I have provided the information required under the members’ register of interests. I also considered that the additional disclosures I provided under the ministerial standards were in accordance with its additional requirements.”
“I am not prepared to seek to break the confidentiality of those people who contributed to my legal fees under what are well-known and regular legal structures, including the confidentiality attached to the trust contribution.”
Porter’s statement concluded by confirming that he intended to contest the next election in his WA electorate of Pearce.
“I have no intention of standing aside from my responsibilities to the people of Pearce,” he said.
Morrison thanked Porter for serving the government, in cabinet and as the leader of government business in the House of Representatives, and said that minister for energy and emissions reduction Angus Taylor would take on his ministerial responsibilities .
“Minister Porter will be returning to the backbench, where he will continue to serve as the member for Pearce. But, I thank him for his service in our government to the people of Australia,” the pm said.