The Politics    Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Hushed money

By Rachel Withers

Image of former attorney-general Christian Porter. Image via Sky News

Former attorney-general Christian Porter. Image via Sky News

Christian Porter manages to keep one more thing secret in his quest to suppress everything about the allegations against him

The plot surrounding the allegations against former attorney-general Christian Porter continues to thicken, amid his disclosure that he received a donation to cover his legal fees – but he supposedly doesn’t know who from. Porter has today updated the parliamentary register of interests, noting that a “part contribution” to his settled defamation case against the ABC was coming from a blind trust known as the “Legal Services Trust”, adding that he had “no access to information about the conduct and funding of the trust”. It’s hard to believe that Porter doesn’t know where this money came from. There have long been rumours that he was to be helped out by a mysterious benefactor, and his costs in suing the ABC were expected to reach as much as $1 million, which would make it a difficult suit for him to have embarked upon without knowing from the outset that he had someone’s backing. (As Samantha Maiden reports, high-profile candidates Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, Nev Power and Gina Rinehart have all previously denied their involvement.) And yet this shadowy declaration is within the reporting requirements, if not within the spirit of them. Once again, Porter has played the system to his advantage in his quest to keep everything about the case hushed up. But the secretive donation, as with his previous attempts at suppression, has only raised further questions – more questions, no doubt, for the long called-for inquiry into his fitness for office (or perhaps even for a federal anti-corruption commission). Who made this donation to Porter’s legal fees? Why did they want to be anonymous? And what did they want in return? After all, money talks – unless of course you run it through a blind trust.

So who made this anonymised contribution? It’s very hard for us to know, given that money received through a blind trust is somehow within the disclosure rules. Trusts are not required to be registered in Australia, meaning details such as beneficiaries, trustees and revenues are not publicly available. (And while trusts where an MP doesn’t know where their money is invested are common, this would seem to open a whole new can of worms, as Guardian Australia editor Lenore Taylor notes.) It seems unlikely that Porter will be compelled to let on any further: the now industry minister has implied that he had only declared as much as he had about the “personal” donations “out of an abundance of caution”, while a spokesperson declined to say how much of his fees were covered, noting that no taxpayer dollars were involved. Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus – who has previously said that Porter must declare it if he is getting help with his legal fees, and say from whom – is not happy with today’s murky declaration, tweeting that Porter needs to rule out if his case was funded by criminals or foreign governments.

Regardless of who it was, or how much, it would be crazy to think that they didn’t want anything in return. After all, what kind of millionaire (or foreign government/criminal syndicate) donates enormous amounts of money, out of the goodness of their heart, to a politician, and one accused of a heinous rape no less (an allegation he denies) to pursue a defamation claim? While Porter no doubt has many good friends among the elite, this generous “gift” certainly feels political. Even if he truly doesn’t know who contributed to his very expensive legal action, he’s opened himself up to future favour call-ins with this very personal donation. 

And while the “blind trust” declaration may be within the rules, there is no doubt there is something extremely disconcerting about its anonymised nature. What kind of country do we live in when shadowy figures are bankrolling politicians’ legal pursuits? What interest do they have in helping someone who already holds vast power over his deceased accuser to use that money to further silence her? It speaks to something deeply broken about the rules themselves, under which politicians can apparently avoid disclosing the identities of private donors if they are able to plead ignorance themselves. As the Accountability Round Table notes, Porter previously went cold on the extension of anti-money laundering laws to lawyers, after once supporting them. Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst and journalist Ariel Bogle, meanwhile, wonders how this fits into the government’s own Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.

The federal government has been less fond of transparency when it comes to its own dealings, what with its failure to introduce a federal anti-corruption commission more than 1000 days after promising it would, and its ongoing failure to produce documents requested under freedom of information laws, as it did again to Nine this week. But Porter takes this to a whole new level. He has succeeded, yet again, in keeping crucial information about his defamation action off the public record, this time through the use of a “blind trust”. But he remains, as ever, blind to how bad it looks.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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