Threats to Australia’s democracy come in many forms but none is so insidious as the one posed by the power of corrupt money. The perception that politicians are open to influence by cash has the effect of sapping voters’ faith in the system and pushes them towards, on the one hand, extreme views and, on the other, apathy and disengagement.
Yet Australia is facing a crucial choice about the power of black money as Prime Minister Scott Morrison decides whether he will allow Industry Minister Christian Porter to accept a significant cash gift from a benefactor or benefactors through a blind trust. Mr Porter made a cursory disclosure of the gift this week in the federal parliamentary register of pecuniary interests without naming the amount.
Industry Minister Christian Porter has faced intense criticism for accepting an undisclosed sum of money through a blind trust.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
He said the gift, through a structure called the Legal Services Trust, helped him pay for the legal costs associated with a defamation case against the ABC over an online report which he alleged portrayed him as the perpetrator of a rape in 1988. Mr Porter settled the case in May, by which time he had run up a legal bill estimated to be as much as $1 million, although the ABC paid him $78,000 in costs as part of the settlement.
Mr Porter says the gift was a private matter and as a beneficiary of the blind trust he was not entitled to know who gave the money. He says he had no access to information about the conduct and funding of the trust. From the public’s point of view, however, without knowing who gave him the money or the amount, it is impossible to know whether he has complied with the ministerial code of conduct, which requires him not to “seek or accept any kind of benefit or other valuable consideration either for themselves or for others in connection with performing or not performing any element of their official duties as a minister”.
The fact the payment was for legal expenses rather than going into Mr Porter’s pocket is irrelevant. Former ALP senator Sam Dastyari was forced to resign over concerns he may have been influenced by Yuhu Group, which paid about $5000 towards his legal expenses in a case over unpaid bills, and the payment by another Chinese-based organisation of $1700 for an overspend on travel entitlements. He disclosed both gifts.
It is, of course, possible there was nothing untoward about the donation to Mr Porter’s legal defence. Perhaps philanthropists paid his legal bills out of the goodness of their hearts, expecting nothing in return and modestly wishing to remain anonymous. Even if Mr Morrison accepts that interpretation, he cannot allow the gift to stand because the precedent opens a huge loophole for corruption.
It would allow foreign powers and criminal groups, not to mention companies and individuals seeking favours from government, to make secret gifts to ministers. As a former attorney-general Mr Porter should understand this. Mr Morrison is being equally obtuse in asking Phil Gaetjens, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, to adjudicate the issue.
Mr Gaetjens is hardly an independent authority on this matter and, in any case, Mr Morrison should know in his bones that politicians cannot accept anonymous gifts.
Mr Morrison says he is ready to take “hard decisions”, but this is not hard. The Prime Minister showed no such scruples when he effectively ordered the sacking of Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate for giving $5000 Cartier watches as a reward to executives.
If Mr Porter wants to save his position in cabinet he could return the money. Alternatively, he could ask his benefactors to help him out by identifying themselves.
Mr Morrison’s shilly-shallying on a matter which goes to the heart of probity in government is a reminder of his failure to enact his promise to establish an effective national integrity commission. Large anonymous gifts to politicians are exactly the sort of transactions which such an agency should investigate. Mr Morrison has made much this week of the threat posed to Australia by China’s expansion, but the slow withering of faith in democracy is just as pressing an issue.
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