OPINION

What Christian Porter's 'lottery win' means for us

Former attorney-general Christian Porter updated his register of members' interests this week to include a contribution from a blind trust to cover part of his legal fees. Picture: Getty Images
Former attorney-general Christian Porter updated his register of members' interests this week to include a contribution from a blind trust to cover part of his legal fees. Picture: Getty Images

I am so grateful to former attorney-general Christian Porter, because he has united Australians.

Only a handful of people in Australia now believe Porter has done the right thing with his latest caper - receiving an undisclosed sum of money through a legal instrument called a blind trust in order to fund, in part, his defamation case against the ABC and sainted reporter Louise Milligan. It failed to proceed, but still cost a bomb. Porter says there's nothing to see here. But even his longstanding backer Scott Morrison has said he is going to look into Porter's arrangements.

Many women already doubted his probity after the revelations in Louise Milligan's superb Four Corners episode. That was accelerated after Porter confessed he was the politician at the centre of sexual assault allegations, which can't be dealt with to anybody's satisfaction, despite the Prime Minister's assertion the presumption of innocence must be maintained. The alleged victim is no longer alive to make her case. Porter's case against the ABC was discontinued earlier this year.

As I predicted in March, Porter can't get his reputation back, through all fault of his own. Now I wonder whether he can last the month, even in this government under siege.

Honestly, Porter's shenanigans are like watching one of those hideous reality shows where one of the contestants knows he doesn't have it in him to win but keeps trying anyway, debasing himself and finally pulling the grandma card. At the end of these multiple embarrassments, he gets the boot anyway. Excruciating.

We are in the middle of a pandemic, we've got stubborn unemployment, raging inequality across race and gender, and all Christian Porter can do in the face of these challenges is to focus on himself. It is breathtakingly entitled behaviour.

There's no evidence or suggestion Porter offered or granted anyone any favours in return for the contribution. The issue is that there's no transparency which would allow us to determine whether or not the blind trust - or as the rest of us call it, the anonymous donation - came with strings attached.

If only we had a federal ICAC, a national integrity commission. And not Morrison's proposed shadow of a commission, with no real powers and no memory. One with actual ovaries. We'd know in two minutes who was behind this.

Kim Rubenstein, a law professor at the University of Canberra and an independent candidate for the Senate, says the decision to set up a blind trust lacks integrity and transparency. Porter truly expects us to believe he doesn't know where the money came from, that it was a gift from some Croesus or many (not sure what the plural would be) who just wanted to help a struggling minister in the Morrison government overcome financial hardship and return to his glory days as a federal attorney-general.

I mean OK, sure. Someone coughs up potentially up to a mil to pay Porter's costs. Lovely.

But it is now up to him to ask where the hell the money came from. As far as I understand, as the beneficiary, he has the power to find out which kindly gentleman or woman, or scheming bastard, has forked out this lavish amount, and then find out why the hell the money hasn't been given to a good cause.

There has only been one bit of good news about this farce. Finally, Scott Morrison has refused to stand by his man. He is looking into the matter to ensure no ministerial standards have been breached. I don't actually have much hope that this will come to anything, but at least Morrison has now conceded Porter is imperfect. Time to move him out of the ministry altogether so he can prepare himself for life after the next election as one of those despicable consultant lobbyists.

In the meantime, Josh Frydenberg, the man who keeps telling us that businesses wouldn't have taken JobKeeper money if they thought they would have to pay it back (he must be astonished at the number of business which repay loans from banks every single day) still stands by Porter, as does Andrew Hastie, whose judgment ought to be better than that.

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The clear problem for all of us is where it leaves voters. We are abandoned at the intersection of public accountability and political secrecy. The volume and audacity of this government's pork-barrelling is staggering, and nothing seems to shame them into better behaviour. This kind of secretive funding is a significant institutional barrier for accountability. If Porter gets away with this one, it will unleash further horrors. The rules we have for funding elections should be applied to any money and/or gift politicians receive during the course of their terms in office. What if the gift was from a foreign government?

Katy Barnett, professor at the University of Melbourne Law School, whose speciality is trusts, is astounded by Porter's receipt of this gift, a practice more often identified with US politics. She's also concerned that it is operating like litigation funding, which pretty much gambles on outcomes of court cases.

"Blind trusts should not be used in this way," she says.

And never mind the legal aspect. Barnett, a careful and thoughtful person, says she would be wary of taking money from someone she didn't know.

"For me what is somewhat worrying is the uncertainty, the lack of transparency. Is someone trying to get political influence in one way or another? Does it come with strings attached? I would not accept that money," she says.

Derwent Coshott, a lecturer in trusts at the University of Sydney's Law School, compares the blind trust with a GoFundMe set up on someone else's behalf. Hell, I've done that. I remember reading a story about a woman in rural Australia who'd run out of water and money. We raised enough to get her to the end of winter. But we knew where the money came from, and we knew what its purpose was.

Not so for our lucky lottery winner Mr Porter. And now he has united Australia, the end result may be lucky for the rest of us.

  • Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.
This story What Christian Porter's 'lottery win' means for us first appeared on The Canberra Times.