Labor to push for privileges committee to investigate Porter donations

© (Photo by Matt Jelonek/Getty Images) Christian Porter attends a luncheon

Christian Porter may not have to disclose the source of his anonymous donations for his legal fees even if Federal Parliament does investigate, with the rules governing the register of interest unclear about whether the identity of donors must be declared.

Mr Porter resigned from cabinet on Sunday rather than reveal details of the benefactors who secretly helped pay his legal fees through a so-called blind trust in his since-discontinued defamation case against the ABC.

Labor is aiming to refer the matter to the House of Representatives privileges committee when sittings resume next month, which has the power to scrutinise complaints relating to members’ register of interests.

Under the standing orders, Liberal Speaker Tony Smith can give “precedence” to a Labor motion calling for the committee to investigate, which may go to a vote in the chamber or pass on the voices. This occurred in 2017 when former Liberal minister Bruce Billson was referred to the privileges committee for accepting, and not declaring, a paid lobbying job while he was still an MP and he was subsequently censured by the House.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese maintains that Mr Porter defied the obligations of the register by providing only basic information about the “Legal Services Trust” which he declared last week had made a part contribution to his legal fees. But Mr Porter did not disclose the amount or who was behind the trust.

“The rules that are clearly there that members of Parliament cannot receive anonymous donations at amounts which are undisclosed, and continue to sit in the Parliament,” Mr Albanese said on Tuesday.

“If Christian Porter’s actions are allowed to stand, it will render completely irrelevant the register of pecuniary interest, which is so important to have confidence in our political system.”

But it is unclear whether the register requires MPs to disclose the identity of benefactors. The explanatory notes, which provide guidance for MPs on which interests must be publicly declared, state that MPs must declare gifts valued at more than $750 received from official sources, or at more than $300 where received from other than official sources.

It also states: “No form can cover all possible circumstances and members should consequently bear in mind the purpose and spirit of the return in deciding which matters should be registered.”

Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce again insisted Mr Porter had not broken any laws, adding to his call on Monday that he may return to the frontbench in the future.

“There is no law that Mr Porter has broken. He has decided of his own volition that he was in breach of the Ministerial Code of Conduct, which is a Code of Conduct that is given by the Prime Minister,” Mr Joyce said.

Other MPs have also made declarations about gifts and travel without disclosing the source. Independent Queensland MP Bob Katter, for example, has disclosed the “use of private aircraft from time to time, sometimes during election campaigns – probably not happening these days.”

As first reported by Crikey, Mr Joyce has also disclosed the use of a private charter flight, without disclosing who had paid for it, declaring a trip in May from Armidale to Brisbane.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said Mr Porter’s disclosure “has been anything but transparent”.

“He received up to a million dollars from one or more mysterious donors with unknown motives – which is literally thousands of times higher than the disclosure threshold,” he said.

In his resignation statement, Mr Porter said he believed he had complied with both the register of interests and the ministerial standards. He said the trustees who received and administered the donations had assured him none of the contributors were lobbyists or prohibited foreign donors, but he was unwilling to breach their confidentiality by asking the trust to reveal their identities.

It is still unclear from Mr Porter’s public statements whether he knows the identities of the donors or not.

“Ultimately, I decided that if I have to make a choice between seeking to pressure the trust to break individuals’ confidentiality in order to remain in cabinet, or alternatively forego my cabinet position, there is only one choice I could, in all conscience, make,” he said.

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