The Politics    Thursday, October 21, 2021

Protecting Porter

By Rachel Withers

Image of former industry minister Christian Porter in the House of Representatives, August 24, 2021. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

Former industry minister Christian Porter in the House of Representatives, August 24, 2021. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

Why does the government keep doing this?

If the Coalition’s integrity seemed questionable at 4pm yesterday, things have since gotten a whole lot worse. Outrage is mounting over the government’s refusal to have Christian Porter’s “blind trust”, through which anonymous donors contributed to legal fees for his defamation case against the ABC, referred to the privileges committee, despite Speaker Tony Smith finding there was a prima facie case for it. Journalists, Labor, former politicians, legal experts and Australian of the Year Grace Tame have eviscerated the “unprecedented” move. The government, however, has continued to argue semantics, implying it is already being looked into, while accusing Labor of “playing politics”. On the breakfast TV circuit, Scott Morrison continued with the argument – launched yesterday by leader of the house Peter Dutton – that the government had already written to the committee asking it to clarify the rules, making Labor’s call for an inquiry redundant (“rule clarification” is, of course, entirely different to what Labor is asking for). “If others want to play politics with it, that’s their prerogative,” the PM told Today, pretending to take the moral high ground. “I want to make sure the rules are right so the integrity is protected.” The same lines were trotted out in Question Time, where Labor hammered the government on Porter, as well as its failure to implement its promised anti-corruption commission. “The suggestion that somehow things are not being looked into, that things have not been referred to, is not the case,” Morrison claimed, of Porter’s donation. But the government is absolutely playing politics here, defying a precedent that has existed since Federation in order to protect one of its own. The question now on many people’s lips (including Walkley nominee Louise Milligan, whose story was the reason Porter launched defamation proceedings he apparently couldn’t afford) is why? Why does this government keep going to such staggering lengths to prevent inquiries into Porter’s actions, when covering them up looks so undeniably suspicious?

Labor, for one, was not buying the government’s argument about clarifying the rules on legal donations. Holding a doorstop interview this morning, leader Anthony Albanese suggested that Dutton’s move amounted to “look over here, look at something else”. Senate leader Penny Wong, meanwhile, emphasised the cover-up on RN Breakfast and News Breakfast. “Australians deserve a prime minister who uses their power for the good of the country,” she said. “Scott Morrison uses his power to protect his mates.” But the most outraged might have been Centre for Public Integrity director Geoffrey Watson SC, who told the ABC in no uncertain terms that the government was damaging democracy. “One, you’ve harmed the reputation of parliament. Two, you’ve undermined the independence of the speaker. Three, you’ve confined or restricted parliament’s ability to scrutinise the conduct of its own members. And four, you’ve engaged in a cover-up, frankly,” he said, urging “moderate” Liberal MPs to cross the floor and actually stand for something. He might want to exchange notes with independent MP Helen Haines, who is today warning the PM she plans to lobby “concerned” government MPs for support on her corruption watchdog proposal, after he refused to allow debate on her bill. Haines met with Wentworth MP Dave Sharma yesterday and with Higgins MP Katie Allen today.

Those MPs, among others, have the most to lose here (other than perhaps Porter himself), with independent challengers gearing up to fight them on integrity as well as climate change at the upcoming election. And yet Morrison seems more intent on protecting the replaceable member for Pearce than protecting those seats. As Warringah MP Zali Steggall tweeted, even MPs she previously thought had “some ethical compass” had ignored the speaker to block the referral, noting they didn’t seemed to think they were going to be judged individually for the actions of the whole.

There are several theories floating around as to why the government is going to such lengths to protect Porter and his donors – many of which revolve around just how bad the truth must be. Speaking on RN Breakfast, Network 10 political editor Peter Van Onselen (a good friend of Porter’s) suggested that Morrison blocked the inquiry because he fears Porter might quit rather than reveal his donors’ identities, forcing an uncomfortable byelection. Crikey’s Bernard Keane supposes that the shadowy figures must wield such power over the government that it will do “almost anything to protect them” (including throwing their speaker under the bus), while Amber Schultz argues this is just another example of “the boys protecting the boys”, considering this all started with an allegation of rape (which Porter denies). Whatever the reason, it’s clearly something serious if the government is willing to throw precedent and standards out the window to conceal it.

As usual, the extreme suppression efforts only raise further questions – much like the government’s refusal to hold an independent inquiry into the original allegation, or Porter’s very pricey bid to have any and all evidence in the case permanently, legally banned. The mystery of #WhoPaidPorter (which is, of course, the thing that ultimately forced him from the ministry) has become almost as big an issue as the original allegation itself. But the question of why the government doesn’t want this looked into – and why every single one of its MPs voted against precedent to conceal it – may have far more wide-ranging consequences for the government than for this individual man.


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“Knausgaard maintains an almost unbreakable focus on domestic servitude, shopping, list-making, mental doodling and other everyday acts of beautiful banality, each and every one rendered in exacting, almost numbing detail. Very few novels of note this year will dare contain an entire paragraph given over to a teenager’s wholly meaningless appreciation of Ariana Grande’s video clips. The Morning Star is such a novel.”

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“This time next year Australia will be well into the Albanese government’s first term or the Morrison government’s third. If you had to bet your house on it now, which would you predict?” 

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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