OPINION

'Blind trusts' are supposed to promote integrity, not put it at risk

Former attorney-general Christian Porter. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Former attorney-general Christian Porter. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

If Tony Smith does not resign in the next couple of days, I will be shocked.

The Speaker of the House, who has been a completely godsend in a parliament which has otherwise been the House of Misrepresentatives, is now presiding over a parliament which has deliberately flouted his clear advice. On Wednesday, Smith said there was a prima facie case to refer former attorney-general Christian Porter to Parliament's privileges committee for the now-backbencher's use of a blind trust to pay his legal fees. Smith's own party said no. It voted to protect Porter from any further scrutiny.

This refusal to act on the advice of the Speaker has never, ever happened before. Smith is a decent human, and was once dumped by Abbott so you can tell he's a person with good values. I'm not sure how long he can hold out with the badly behaved.

The story so far: Christian Porter, the former attorney-general, was at the centre of sexual assault allegations, which he strongly denies, reported by Walkley Award-winning journalist Louise Milligan and published by the ABC. Rumours had swirled for weeks, and after the story was published Porter decided to sue. The case didn't proceed. You all know this.

You will also know that the ABC agreed to pay the costs of mediation and place an editor's note on the original article which said the ABC did not intend to suggest Porter had actually committed the alleged offence. While Porter claimed the ABC had been forced into a backdown, no one else could figure out how he got to that conclusion. The article remains online.

Anyhow, the end result is that all this cost a bomb, which apparently Porter did not have at his disposal. Some black knights in stealth gear came to his aid courtesy of a blind trust, which paid for the legal costs. His refusal to force the unveiling of the identity of those behind the trust cost him his frontbench spot, and will cost him his future political career. Actually, that was already done and dusted. This just puts the final bandage on the mummy. If he never reveals who was behind the blind trust, he will never, ever be able to be a minister, let alone realise his long-held ambition to be prime minister. Such a shame.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) confers with House Speaker Tony Smith on another matter earlier in the year. Picture: Getty Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) confers with House Speaker Tony Smith on another matter earlier in the year. Picture: Getty Images

A few weeks back, I spoke to Katy Barnett, a professor at the University of Melbourne Law School with a speciality in trusts. She was astonished by Porter's acceptance of the gift, and said blind trusts should not be used in this way. I called her again when I heard the news about what transpired in Parliament. When she picked up the phone, the first thing she said was "I'm appalled".

She also has devised a new term for this particular use of a blind trust, which makes it seem much less innocuous.

"This is a secret trust, not a blind trust. It is being used to reduce transparency," says Barnett, who I can guarantee you is not one for hyperbole.

She likens this to the Cayman Islands, to the Pandora Papers, to offshore trusts; and not to the tool more properly used to distance politicians from their business opportunities while in government to reduce conflicts of interest.

"We can't work out who the real donor is, so it is being used as a shield, a layer of secrecy to avoid accountability," she says.

Why do we need to know who put up the money? Well, what if the funder was a foreign government? Or Clive Palmer? What if the funder was someone who would stand to benefit from a politician who owed a favour to those behind the instrument of secrecy?

Says Barnett: "I do wonder who set up this trust. I really do."

Morrison's comments on Thursday were even more troubling. While Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the idea Porter did not know where the money came from was unbelievable, the Prime Minister revealed this bombshell.

"There are many other members of parliament who've been in this situation about how they fund legal costs to pursue defamation actions," he said. "That's not just one member. There are other members and we've got to get the rules clear."

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Imagine getting the rules straight after they've been in use for years. What now? Bending the rules so they suit the circumstance? This government is so bent anyway, this kind of abject post hoc-ery would not surprise.

Rod Tiffen, emeritus professor of government at the University of Sydney, says the decision by the government to ignore the Speaker's recommendation shows a complete contempt for transparency and accountability.

"It shows how far this government has come in terms of disdain for normal democratic processes of disclosure. If it is allowed to continue in this fashion, this government will reset the norms downwards in terms of public expectation and what the government thinks it can get away with."

My god, couldn't we all do with a national anti-corruption commission with some ovaries? I cannot believe all the bellyaching from Morrison and co about how hard done by the former premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian, is. Who on Earth thinks she would have thrown in the towel if she didn't know both her former premier Mike Baird and public servant Nigel Blunden were about to throw her (and the towel) under the bus? It has never, ever been clearer that we need exactly the same set-up nationally as in NSW.

While the chaos swirls, on Thursday the ABC's Fran Kelly revealed she was moving on from RN Breakfast. I can't imagine who could possibly do what she's done for years. Kelly gets the best interviews out of people, and she's tough on everyone. When Kelly asked Penny Wong about Porter on Thursday, the shadow minister for speaking the nation's mind said: "I think Australians do deserve a prime minister who uses their power for the good of the nation [instead of using] his power to protect his mates and to avoid accountability."

As Wong says, we need a prime minister who will stand up for accountability and transparency, not one who wants to protect his mates.

  • Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at ANU and a regular columnist.
This story 'Blind trusts' are supposed to promote integrity, not put it at risk first appeared on The Canberra Times.