Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraIndustry Minister Christian Porter has been forced to resign from cabinet after declining to seek and provide to Scott Morrison the names of the anonymous benefactors who have helped fund his legal costs.
Morrison has appointed energy minister Angus Taylor acting industry minister and sources say he is likely to continue in the dual role.
Porter’s resignation comes as Newspoll shows the government slightly reducing Labor’s two-party lead, from 54-46% to 53-47%. Labor’s primary vote fell 2 points to 38%; the Coalition rose a point to 37%.
Both leaders took hits in approval: Morrison is on a net negative of minus 4, while Anthony Albanese is on a net negative of minus 11. Morrison’s lead as better PM has fallen to 47-35%, from 50-34% three weeks ago – this is the closest since March last year.
In a three-page statement, Porter renewed his attack on the ABC and said a statement provided by the now-deceased woman who accused him of historical rape – which he denies – showed the allegation lacked credibility and was written by someone “very unwell”.
Porter is keeping the funds donated to a “blind trust”, the amount of which is unknown. He also says he will seek to run again in his Western Australian seat of Pearce, which is on a 5.2% margin.
Last week, Porter updated his parliamentary register of interests to reveal a “part contribution” to his legal bills for his (now settled) defamation case against the ABC from “a blind trust known as the Legal Services Trust”. Porter said he did not know the names of donors.
Morrison asked his department to advise whether the arrangement breached ministerial standards.
But Morrison indicated at a news conference on Sunday he and Porter had finalised his future ahead of the advice.
Morrison was clearly anxious to have it settled before his trip to the United States, so it would not be a distraction during what he hopes will be a time of positive news following last week’s announcement of the AUKUS security agreement.
Bad publicity around Porter has been a running sore for the government for much of the year.
The historical rape allegation surfaced publicly in February, when the ABC reported material about it had been sent to several politicians, including the prime minister. Porter was not named but later identified himself, declaring the alleged assault had never happened.
Initially, he hoped to retain his position as attorney-general, but this was politically untenable and he was moved to the industry job in a reshuffle.
With an outcry over the “blind trust” and an election approaching next year, Morrison could not afford another prolonged scandal around Porter. He indicated Porter’s future was in doubt when he said last week he was taking the matter very seriously.
Morrison said on Sunday that in their discussions, Porter had been unable to “practically provide further information because of the nature of those [trust] arrangements”.
That Porter couldn’t provide the information meant he could not conclusively rule out a perceived conflict of interest.
Morrison said Porter was upholding the ministerial standards by resigning.
Porter said in his statement that while he had no right of access to the trust’s funding or conduct, he had asked the trustee for an assurance, which he received, “that none of the contributors were lobbyists or prohibited foreign entities.
“This additional information was provided as part of my Ministerial disclosure,” he said.
He said no doubt the desire of some or many of the donors to remain anonymous was driven by wanting to avoid “trial by mob”.
Porter said he believed that he had provided the information required under the Members’ Register of Interests, and that the additional disclosures he provided under the Ministerial Standards were in accord with its additional requirements.
“However, after discussing the matter with the Prime Minister I accept that any uncertainty on this point provides a very unhelpful distraction for the Government in its work.”
He said to the extent the uncertainty might be resolved by seeking further information about donors’ identities, “this would require me to put pressure on the Trust to provide me with information to which I am not entitled.
“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 said.
He had explained he “could not assist any process that would ultimately allow people who have done nothing wrong to become targets of the social media mob.”
“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.”
In his renewed attack on the ABC, Porter said that “seemingly with great care and effort – [it] has reported only those parts of the information that it has in its possession which feeds into its narrative of guilt.
“I have recently been provided from a source outside the ABC with a copy of the only signed document that the person who made and subsequently withdrew the complaint ever made.
“Many parts of that 88-page document are such that any reasonable person would conclude that they show an allegation that lacks credibility; was based on repressed memory (which has been completely rejected by courts as unreliable and dangerous); which relied on diaries said to be drafted in 1990/91 but which were actually words composed in 2019; and, was written by someone who was, sadly, very unwell.”
Albanese said Porter needed to answer where the money had come from. He also said Morrison had not sacked Porter – Porter had resigned.
Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra
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