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Curious case of Christian Porter and the $1m secret nobody wants to talk about

Politics

The political gymnastics aimed at keeping former Attorney-General Christian Porter’s $1m legal fund a secret have reached new and astonishing levels, writes Dennis Atkins

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Let’s roll over the most common lie about Christian Porter’s secret stash of cash he’s amassed to fund legal fees in his prosecution of a defamation action against the ABC.

It’s not a blind trust. It’s not even a trust. A trust is a vehicle for investment funds which, while not a legal entity, is covered for taxation purposes.

“While in legal terms a trust is a relationship not a legal entity, trusts are treated as taxpayer entities for the purposes of tax administration,” says Australian Tax Office advice.

So let’s stop this linguistic nonsense. What the former Attorney-General has set up to store donations for legal fees is not a trust, blind or visionary. It’s simply a secret fund – perhaps a slush fund if we’re being really honest about things.

As they say, you can put lipstick on a pig but that doesn’t mean you’ll want to kiss it.

The Porter slush fund is a front runner for the title of political fail of the year in one during which just about every team was trying, and serious competition has been on display at every level of government.

Here’s a quick recap for those who have been blinded by the blizzard of cover ups, squirrel throws and blatant denials of reality that pass for public administration these days.

After Porter discontinued a defamation action against the ABC and journalist Louise Milligan earlier this year, the public broadcaster covered the mediation costs and issued an apology. The minister was left with some of his own costs, estimated to run in excess of $1 million.

In the middle of September Porter updated his statement of interests to include monies paid from a “legal trust” which was used to pay those outstanding costs. He said he didn’t know who had donated the money or who set it up the “trust” which is why he branded it as a blind funding vehicle.

When Porter told Scott Morrison he wouldn’t seek to find out and then disclose who was behind the slush fund, the Prime Minister nudged him into resignation – if there was any truth in the language this government uses, they would’ve said he was sacked.

Now Porter is on the backbench but his $1 million slush fund is still there, making the reason for his “resignation” all too obvious. He walked so he could keep the money – plain and simple.

Now the Parliament is edging towards prising open that fund. The matter was referred to the Speaker as a matter of privilege and, in a rare move, Tony Smith said there was a possible case of a breach of that serious issue (has the operation of the Parliament and Porter’s place in it been impacted by keeping the fund secret?).

However, when this was tested on the floor of Parliament the government used a strict whip of its numbers and voted down the referral.

Don’t stop there because, as the steak knife guy says, there’s more. There was a chance the government might have lost the vote because those independents who were not physically present were set to back a referral, leaving the casting vote to the Speaker who would almost certainly back his prime facie finding of privilege.

How did the government get over this hurdle? They bent the rules: Manager of Government Business, Defence Minister Peter Dutton told those independents who were back in their electorates they couldn’t vote because their deliberation was not secure.

This is despite the fact independents in the Senate have been voting remotely for most of the year.

This is a denial of voting rights that would be cheered on by the bully boys of democratic suppression in the United States Congress, the Trumpian Republicans. US Senate leader Mitch McConnell would view these actions with pride and awe.

While Porter’s decision to shamelessly hide the donors of the money – an undenied $1 million – was a classic political own goal, the government’s reaction last week takes tactical dumbness to a new level.

The government looks like it’s doing whatever it takes to shield Porter from the kind of exposure and scrutiny that should be a minimum for a federal politician, it’s using its numbers to shut down even a modicum of transparency and accountability and the executive is thumbing its collective nose at the Parliament and the Speaker.

It’s hard to think of a more complete textbook example of everything the public hates about politics.

From one rule for us and one for the public through a default position that flicks to cover up and then resting at a total contempt for the rights of citizens to know what’s happening at the top of public life. A trifecta of sleaze.

There has never been a government in Canberra so addicted to secrecy, so bone lazy when it comes to accountability and so hateful of the public’s right to know.

There are four major public issues that stir debate and sentiment in the community: the handling of the pandemic with particular attention on the vaccine rollouts; the economic recovery; tackling climate change and integrity through accountability and transparency.

They are all difficult and not all swing one way. However, the last can be controlled by the government to a much greater extent because they control the legislative and administrative levers.

To fly in the face of positive action tells us so much about this government and its inclinations. It stands condemned by its own behaviour.

 

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