Scott Morrison says the declaration of funds from a blind trust for the Christian Porter defamation case will now be examined by a broader parliamentary inquiry.
The prime minister has told parliament the house had decided “there should be clearer rules” around disclosure when members are faced with defamation proceedings and that had been referred to the privileges committee.
On Wednesday the Coalition used its majority in the House of Representatives to vote down a Labor push to refer Porter to the privileges committee to determine whether his declaration complied with relevant disclosure rules, despite the speaker, Tony Smith, finding there was a “prima facie case” to investigate.
But the government’s procedural victory is unlikely to be the end of the matter.
The privileges committee is now considering the rules on disclosing donations to cover legal fees, after Peter Dutton, the leader of the house, claimed other members had accepted crowdsourced funds for defamation cases.
The committee has not ruled out making findings against individual MPs after the shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, separately wrote to the committee on Monday seeking an investigation of Porter.
In question time on Thursday Morrison said the house had decided “there should be clearer rules” around disclosure when members are faced with defamation proceedings.
“Now, that is what we have referred … to the privileges committee,” he said.
“The suggestion that somehow things are not being looked into, that things have not been referred to, is not the case … We’ve referred these matters directly to the chair of the privileges committee to consider these issues.”
In September, Porter declared that the Legal Services Trust had part-paid his legal fees arising from the private defamation case he instigated against the ABC. The former attorney general said as a “potential beneficiary” of the blind trust he had no access to information about the source of the funds.
On Monday, Labor moved to refer Porter to the privileges committee to investigate a possible breach of disclosure rules. Porter denies breaking the rules.
The leader of the house, Peter Dutton, has asked the committee to consider clarifying the rules around disclosure of donations for legal cases, a request that could encompass consideration of how members are interpreting the rules but does not ask for a ruling on Porter.
In the course of debate on Wednesday, Dutton raised the possibility the government and opposition could agree to treat funding of defamation cases as a “workplace entitlement”, raising the prospect of taxpayer funding of such cases.
Dutton, who is suing refugee activist Shane Bazzi for allegedly defamatory tweets, said while some members with “significant wealth” could afford defamation cases, others “don’t have those deep pockets to defend a defamation trial”.
The privileges committee held its weekly meeting on Wednesday night and will continue deliberations on the issue into next week.
On Thursday morning the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said the issue “will continue to fester and be a sore on the political landscape” because the government had blocked a direct inquiry into Porter.
“You can’t have a circumstance whereby a member of parliament can receive anonymous donations for a private matter of up to $1m and not have it declared,” he told ABC Radio.
The crossbench senator Jacqui Lambie said that receipt of funds from an unidentified source is “a brown paper bag job”.
The comments echo former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull’s analogy of the disclosure as like declaring “my legal fees were paid by a guy in a mask who dropped off a chaff bag full of cash”.
Lambie told Channel Nine Porter should disclose “who gave [him] the money”. “We need to know. Because quite frankly, it is really politically dangerous, and once again I’ve had a gutful … Let’s call it out for what it is … it is absolutely disgusting.”
Earlier, Morrison told Channel Nine the government had referred “this broader issue of these crowdsourcing funding arrangements”, arguing that other members of parliament had funded their legal cases with “these arrangements”.
Morrison said the request would “ensure that [members] can get some clear rules when politicians are defamed and how they can actually defend themselves”.
The assistant attorney general, Amanda Stoker, told Sky News the Dutton request will ensure there is “a clear position that will apply equally to all people whatever their political colours” and labelled Labor’s attempted referral a “witch-hunt”.
Liberal senator Andrew Bragg told the ABC he didn’t think the pecuniary interest disclosure rules “are working in the way that they should”.
“I think, frankly, in some cases you could drive a truck through them.”
Porter maintains that he has properly disclosed his interests in accordance with both the rules and the ministerial standards, but resigned as a minister in September on the basis the issue had become an “unhelpful distraction” for the government.
On the day he resigned, Porter said in a statement he was “not willing to put pressure on the trust to provide me with any further information … to which I am not entitled”.
Smith noted on Wednesday that his conclusion there was a “prima facie case” against Porter “does not imply a conclusion that a breach of privilege or contempt has occurred”.