Christian Porter to be formally asked to explain declaration that ‘blind trust’ helped pay his legal fees

Privileges committee considers complaint over whether former attorney general’s action complied with rules

Liberal MP Christian Porter will be formally asked by a powerful parliamentary committee to explain his declaration that legal fees for his defamation case were part-paid by a trust with funds from unknown sources.

Guardian Australia understands the privileges committee decided last week to write to Porter offering him a right of reply to a complaint from shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, that the former attorney general’s failure to declare the ultimate source of funds breached disclosure rules.

The committee also confirmed to Dreyfus it is considering the complaint.

Both moves suggest that despite the Morrison government using its House of Representatives majority to defeat a motion to refer the issue, the member for Pearce’s declaration is nevertheless being scrutinised.

On Monday a spokesperson for Porter told Guardian Australia: “The member will respond to any correspondence received from the committee in due course.”

In September, Porter disclosed that the “Legal Services Trust” had part-paid fees arising from the private defamation case he instigated against the ABC. The former attorney general said that as a “potential beneficiary” of what he described as a blind trust he had no access to information about the source of the funds.

The Dreyfus complaint, sent on 18 October, noted that the register requires gifts worth more than $750 to be declared and that, despite Porter’s disclosure, the House has no idea who or what the ultimate sources of funds were.

In parliamentary debate, Labor’s Tony Burke labelled the trust a “brown paper bag stitched together by lawyers”.

Burke noted Porter’s public assurances that no “foreign donors” or people on the lobbyist register had donated to the trust. “So he has made clear that he can find out whose money is in this trust, from which he has personally benefited for a personal bill,” Burke said.

Dreyfus’s letter similarly argued that Porter’s reasons for not disclosing are not valid, and queried whether he had “acted contrary to House resolutions on the registration of members’ interests”.

Porter maintains 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”.

Porter said he did not want to expose people who donated to the trust to “become targets of the social media mob”.

The leader of the House, Peter Dutton, has asked the privileges 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 did not ask for a ruling on Porter’s declaration.

Because Dreyfus’s complaint accused Porter of breaching the rules, the committee resolved, in line with standard procedure, to offer him a right of reply. The committee also received a written complaint from the Greens senator Larissa Waters.

The committee has not ruled out making findings against individual MPs.

In considering whether to allow debate on the motion to refer Porter, the former speaker Tony Smith found there was a “prima facie case” to investigate Porter for an alleged breach, but added that “does not imply a conclusion that a breach of privilege or contempt has occurred”.

In October Scott Morrison sought to manage fallout from the government blocking the attempted referral of Porter, by insisting the broader consideration of clarifying rules around disclosure when members are faced with defamation proceedings would look into the controversy.

“The suggestion that somehow things are not being looked into, that things have not been referred to [the committee], is not the case,” Morrison told the House in question time.

“We’ve referred these matters directly to the chair of the privileges committee to consider these issues.”

Contributor

Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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