Morrison evades question on when he found out about blind trust payment toward Christian Porter’s legal fees

The PM suggests there may be consequences if Porter breached ministerial guidelines as political pressure on the industry minister grows

Scott Morrison has refused to say whether Christian Porter told him a blind trust paid some of his legal fees, before a public declaration that set off a storm of controversy.

On Thursday the prime minister suggested there may be consequences if his department advises Porter has not adhered to ministerial guidelines, but declined to answer several questions about when he found out about the funding arrangement.

Political pressure on the industry minister continues to grow, with Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, describing his position as “untenable” and the Greens calling for the privileges committee to intervene.

On Tuesday Porter revealed in an update to his register of interests that “a blind trust known as the Legal Services Trust” had paid part of the fees for the now discontinued defamation case against the ABC.

The former attorney general did not disclose the trustees, the amount or the source of the funds, claiming that as a potential beneficiary he had “no access to information about the conduct and funding of the trust”.

Porter insists that the trust fund’s contributions to his legal fees were “were made to me, or were for my benefit, in a purely personal capacity”.

A spokesperson for Porter said he had “undertaken disclosure in accordance with the requirements of the register and consistent with previous members’ disclosure of circumstances where the costs of personal legal matters have been mitigated by contributions or reductions in fees”.

Morrison has told Porter he wants to resolve controversy around his acceptance of funding and sought advice from his department about any actions the minister must take to ensure that he meets the standards.

At a press conference in Canberra announcing the new Aukus security agreement, Morrison initially deferred questions on Porter then pre-empted them by delivering prepared lines.

He told reporters he is taking the matter seriously and is “looking carefully at the arrangements and what the minister will be required to do in order to ensure he was acting consistent with the ministerial guidelines”.

Asked if he knew the trust had part paid Porter’s fees before the public declaration, Morrison replied “I refer to my earlier answer”.

Morrison also dodged a question on when he was first advised Porter was entering the arrangement, and whether it was considered by the governance committee of cabinet.

“I have outlined the pathway forward,” Morrison said, when asked if Porter will remain on the frontbench.

“As always, I will … carefully ensure that the ministerial guidelines are adhered to.

“I have taken decisions in the past, difficult decisions, when I believe they haven’t been adhered to and decisions that have been taken as a consequence of that.

“In the same way, on these issues, I will follow the same process. I will deal with it carefully and … I will ensure that the ministerial guidelines are adhered to.”

The ministerial standards require ministers to be “unaffected by considerations of personal advantage or disadvantage”, including that they “must not seek or encourage any form of gift in their personal capacity”.

“Ministers must also comply with the requirements of the parliament and the prime minister relating to the declaration of gifts.”

The standards require ministers not to seek or accept benefits in connection with their duties and that they must not “come under any financial or other obligation to individuals or organisations” that may appear to improperly influence their duties.

On Thursday Albanese told reporters in Sydney it was “simply untenable for a minister … to receive up to $1m from sources unknown … to pursue a private legal matter and then say that he doesn’t know where the money came from”.

Albanese said it was “beyond [him]” why Morrison needed an inquiry to judge conformity with his own standards. “Christian Porter should go and he should go today.”

But the assistant treasurer, Michael Sukkar, backed Porter, telling ABC TV that he had “no doubt” Porter would “meet the code” and to do anything beyond inquiring into the rules would be “gratuitous”.

The Greens have asked a parliamentary committee to compel Porter to provide more information about the blind trust and queried whether foreign donors to the trust, if any, will also have to register as agents of foreign influence.

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On Wednesday, the Greens deputy leader Larissa Waters wrote to Russell Broadbent, the chair of the standing committee of privileges and members’ interests, asking if it could “compel Mr Porter to provide the identity of the contributor/s to the blind trust, and the amount/s donated”.

“It is in the interests of transparency and good governance to ensure that the public are aware of who has contributed to Mr Porter’s considerable legal fees and ensure a member of cabinet is not under threat of undue influence,” Waters wrote.

In a separate letter, Waters asked the attorney general’s department to consider the potential application of the foreign influence transparency scheme, given that payment of money or things of value to a member of parliament is an activity that may trigger a registration requirement for an agent of foreign influence.

“I am requesting that your department investigate who the contributors have been to the Legal Services Trust to ensure there is no breach of the FITS Act and to ensure no undue influence could arise from such financial contributions and update the transparency register accordingly,” Waters wrote.

Guardian Australia has asked Porter how much was paid by the trust, whether he is aware of the original source of funds, and its trustees.

Contributor

Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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