The Politics    Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Onward, Christian soldiers

By Rachel Withers

Image of Industry Minister Christian Porter addressing the media yesterday. Image via ABC News

Industry Minister Christian Porter addressing the media yesterday. Image via ABC News

The former attorney-general must not be allowed to escape a formal inquiry

For the past 24 hours, opinion pages and social media have been dominated by assertive claims about who “won” in former attorney-general Christian Porter’s decision to withdraw his defamation action against the ABC, and who suffered the “humiliating backdown”. The Murdoch media – which, until recently, insisted there was no way Porter could lose – argues that the fact the broadcaster agreed to pay the costs of mediation (a small sum in the scheme of things) is a sign of the strength of Porter’s case, and that this is “not a great week for journalism at the ABC”. ABC supporters and those linked to the victim say this is a massive win for the broadcaster and reporter Louise Milligan, a “walk-away” by Porter, and they add plenty of satisfying mockery of his victory claims. It’s not unlike the debates that unfolded when Porter came forward as the man accused in the letter mentioned in the article in question: who “won”, or who was telling the truth, comes down almost entirely to belief. Because no one won the argument over whether the ABC defamed Christian Porter – the former attorney-general withdrew his case. Even a defamation ruling, had it gone ahead, wouldn’t have provided the truth. Rather, it would have provided a legal answer to the question of whether the article had implied what Porter said it implied. There remains no winner here. There remains no answer to the question of whether an Australian federal cabinet minister accused of rape is a rapist. And there will be no winner, no answers, until an inquiry is held.

Porter’s desperate attempts to claim that the defamation settlement vindicates him are, of course, ridiculous. He was quick out of the blocks following yesterday’s announcement, spinning and twisting the words of the editor’s note agreed to in the settlement in order to proclaim his innocence. He repeatedly told a press conference that the public broadcaster had said it “regretted” the article’s outcome, and that it “regretted” it being drafted and published in that way, even though – as the ABC reminded everyone in a follow-up statement – it had merely regretted any interpretation of it by readers as an accusation of guilt. He repeatedly claimed that it was agreed that the “article cannot be proven to a civil or criminal standard”, when the ABC editorial merely said that it did “not contend” that “the serious accusations could be substantiated” to such a level – not that it couldn’t be. It doesn’t really bode well for your vindication claims when you have to stretch the words of the settlement so far from their actual form.

But nor is the ABC a clear winner here. Certainly, the fact that this defamation action – an action so often stacked against the media, even when claims are true – ended without it having to pay damages (or even take down the article from its website) must be a huge relief, compared to what might have been. But Porter has also silenced the broadcaster on the matter for now, making sure that any further details it has on him, any defence against his defamation accusation, cannot be reported, not by the ABC nor any other media outlet. (Porter is also demanding the “scandalous” defence be permanently removed from the court’s files, with multiple other news outlets pushing back.) In leaked legal advice, ABC reporters have been told not to suggest Porter “lost” the case, while he gets to strut around declaring victory. And some people may believe him.

For Porter – the former attorney-general and now industry minister, with leadership ambitions – it will be a win if this is the end of the matter. That is clearly what he wanted, and what he was going for in agreeing to what many see as an embarrassing self-own. Even if people laugh and mock and post relevant Monty Python GIFs, Porter will ultimately be the winner if the remaining information is kept secret, and the media caravan eventually moves on. Everyone will go on believing what they want to believe, everyone will feel righteous, and he will remain in his new job that he claims to love very much. And the words of the woman who killed herself and the friends who loved her will go back to not mattering enough to warrant consideration. This is the closest thing to victory Porter is going to get.

An independent inquiry into the allegations and into Porter’s fitness to remain in cabinet is (and always has been) the best way to determine what to do here, and the only way the country can find a resolution to this untenable situation – a situation no less untenable because Porter and the ABC spent a few hours in a room hashing out an editor’s note. With the defamation proceedings now off the table, calls for an inquiry are back with a vengeance. Greens senator Larissa Waters has today promised to introduce a bill for a “commission of inquiry into whether Mr Porter is a fit and proper person to hold any ministerial position” the next time the Senate sits, while Labor has also renewed its calls, with shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus arguing that “Morrison no longer has an excuse to refuse to hold an independent inquiry into these allegations”. The past 24 hours have been all about winners and losers, and, although an independent inquiry will not find any either, it might finally offer a resolution.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

“On the downside, without widespread vaccination, the economy is vulnerable to a sizeable outbreak and accompanying restrictions, and delays to skilled immigration could crimp growth.”


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“They ran a pretty desperate attempt to smear us when in reality the numbers tell a very different story.”

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The list

“The words in budget speeches may reveal a government’s political priorities but it’s the dollars in the budget papers that reveal its real priorities. And while this year’s budget speech mentioned the word ‘women’ 15 times, as many times as the last seven Coalition budgets combined, the treasurer made no mention of any policies to close the gender gap in wages, retirement incomes or homelessness. While Frydenberg’s speech referred to Australians pulling together, his policy priorities will drive them further apart.”

“Two old hands who dose at the pharmacy where I work (a couple, Danny and Carla) have been using since they were 18. They are in their forties now, have raised their kids (the eldest is at university), and keep a neat house in the suburbs. This is their third go at methadone and they think they’ll stick with it this time. Their bodies are older, so they want to take things easier from now on. Like the program itself, they’ve moved into middle age.”

“These recent instances highlight how the level playing field of justice gets tilted for special occasions and special people. Mr XX, DEJ, Mr XX from ZZ and the crypto-currency lawyer would likely feel alarm seeing their names publicly associated with their misdeeds and crimes. Yet there used to be an idea that embarrassment to individuals caught in the cruel machinery of the law was not a basis for protecting their identities. Indeed, public admonition was part of the punishment.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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