The standard you walk past
Ministerial standards breach or no, there is something deeply wrong with the government’s principles
Prime Minister Scott Morrison might have hoped that yesterday’s AUKUS news might have prevented him from being asked awkward questions about Industry Minister Christian Porter and the “investigation” by the PM’s office into whether Porter’s mysterious donation towards his legal fees breached ministerial standards. Unfortunately for Morrison, journalists can focus on more than one thing at a time. After yesterday refusing to say whether Porter would remain on the front bench, or whether he had breached the standards, the PM was today asked whether we could infer from the investigation that Porter would have to go. “These are complicated, these are not ordinary arrangements,” he told ABC’s AM, adding that he wouldn’t speculate on whether paying back the money would make it all okay. The growing political consensus following the latest scandal is that Porter will have to relinquish his portfolio sooner or later; that he will likely slip quietly to the backbench, and then out of politics at the next election (though as Crikey’s Bernard Keane points out, the outcome of the latest Gaetjens inquiry will likely have more to do with electoral considerations in the seat of Pearce than ministerial standards). There is little doubt that Porter breached the standards – in particular section 2.21, which says ministers “must not seek or encourage any form of gift in their personal capacity” – and Morrison has been forced to act, lest he be accused of ignoring the code of conduct. But the fact that it took until now for Porter to face any kind of inquiry shows there is something deeply wrong with the government’s moral standards.
It’s faintly ridiculous to think that a donation towards the legal fees incurred in his defamation case against the ABC might be the thing that brings the former attorney-general down, considering what he stands accused of, and with no proper inquiry having been undertaken to clear the air. If (or when) Porter is stood down from the front bench, the public record will show that this was not because he was accused of a historical rape, but over a mysterious donation. It will be much like the loss of his attorney-general portfolio in the March reshuffle, which was not relinquished because of the allegations he faced, as he was quick to point out, but because of the defamation proceedings he had launched.
From the moment the disturbing Four Corners allegations of rape were aired, it was clear to many that the role of the then anonymous minister had become untenable. But in the eyes of the scandal-prone Morrison government, you have to do something openly corrupt before your position becomes so. Morrison has finally called an inquiry into Porter’s actions (one that, as the satirical site The Shovel points out, is more an inquiry into whether there are ministerial standards in the government at all). But it’s not the inquiry that we have sorely needed for more than six months now. It’s an insult to women everywhere that this donation was considered more worthy of inquiry by the government than the horrifying letter that kicked this whole thing off: a woman’s tragic story that never prompted any real curiosity from Morrison or his team.
When it came to the Porter allegations, the Morrison government had an opportunity to show leadership, to demonstrate that it was going to take the mistreatment of women seriously, that women would be listened to and their allegations considered. It could have set a high standard for its ministers, for the lengths it would go to ensure they were fit for office, and it could have encouraged a higher standard for the entire nation. Instead it set the bar at a new low, brushing aside a dead woman’s harrowing, highlycorroborated story because of the “rule of law”, and because it didn’t suit the government to hear it – and because it could. As former Australian of the Year Lieutenant General David Morrison said in his famous anti-misogyny speech (later referenced by Morrison himself), “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. Even if Porter does finally resign over this politically disastrous breach of the ministerial standards, this will forever remain the standard the Coalition walked past.
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Prime Minister Scott Morrison might have hoped that yesterday’s AUKUS news might have prevented him from being asked awkward questions about Industry Minister Christian Porter and the “investigation” by the PM’s office into whether Porter’s mysterious donation towards his legal fees breached ministerial standards. Unfortunately for Morrison, journalists can focus on more than one thing at a time. After yesterday refusing to say whether Porter would remain on the front bench, or whether he had breached the standards, the PM was today asked whether we could infer from the investigation that Porter would...
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