Scott Morrison has ducked a direct question about why he called a former Labor senator “Shanghai Sam” 17 times before denying he’d ever used that term.
As the opposition doubles down on a campaign of questioning the prime minister’s truthfulness, Morrison was asked to explain why he would use that terminology 17 times on 11 occasions and then deny using it.
The prime minister declared on Tuesday he was unaware of “the claim” Labor referred to, and did not intend to take statements in the question “at face value”.
But this controversy has surfaced before. Challenged in 2019 on 2GB about his use of “Shanghai Sam” and subsequent denials, Morrison told the radio host Ben Fordham: “Of course I remember saying Shanghai Sam”.
In August 2019, he told Fordham he had no regrets about using the moniker. Back then, Morrison said he’d denied using the term because he had misheard a question from a reporter.
With a federal election now in sight, Labor is using the final parliamentary sitting fortnight of 2021 to home in on Morrison’s truthfulness.
On Monday, under pressure after a sequence of Labor questions, Morrison falsely claimed he had told Anthony Albanese that he was travelling to Hawaii during the black summer bushfires. The prime minister later acknowledged in parliament that wasn’t correct – he had told the Labor leader he was going on leave, but not the specific holiday destination.
Morrison responded to Tuesday’s question about his characterisation of the former senator Sam Dastyari by accusing Labor of engaging in “personal” attacks as a substitute for pursuing a policy alternative.
“They come in every day and they engage in personal attacks on me as prime minister,” Morrison said.
“That’s OK – bring it on, bring it on Mr Speaker if you want to engage in personal sledging and have a crack at where I go for holidays, and if I go home and spend Father’s Day with my family … bring it on”.
“The Labor party thinks sledging, whining and whingeing is a policy”.
While Morrison stepped around whether or not particular statements from him had been truthful, he told parliament he remembered the Dastyari furore very well.
Dastyari, a New South Wales right-faction Labor powerbroker, quit the Senate in 2017 after weeks of controversy over his links and interactions with Chinese donors.
“It was the former Labor senator who disgraced himself … by undermining … Australia’s sovereignty in relation to a foreign country,” Morrison declared on Tuesday. “That’s what the former senator Dastyari did Mr Speaker – he had to leave this place in disgrace”.
Morrison said there were now examples in the states “and former [Labor] members of this place, up on charges, off to jail – they’ve got enough people in Silverwater prison to start a branch of the Labor party there, Mr Speaker – that’s what’s going on with the Labor party”.
Tuesday’s question time session was rowdy, with parliamentarians testing the mettle and tolerances of the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, Andrew Wallace.
Wallace has replaced Liberal Tony Smith, who will retire at the coming election. Smith was given a standing ovation when he farewelled the Speaker’s chair on Monday.
Smith told the ABC on Tuesday had he had the power, he would have supported referring former attorney general Christian Porter to the privileges committee over his declaration that part of his defamation legal fees were paid by a blind trust, with funds from an unknown source.
Smith said in October there was a “prima facie case” that Porter should be investigated for a possible breach of disclosure rules, but he didn’t express a view on the substantive merits of a referral.
Labor used Smith’s comment on Tuesday to raise the Porter matter again with the new Speaker at the conclusion of question time.
“Members of this House have spent the past two days praising the member for Casey and the deep integrity he brought to the role of Speaker,” the manager of opposition business Tony Burke said on Tuesday.
Burke said Smith’s personal view about the Porter referral was “new information”. He said the House deserved “another opportunity” to consider referring Porter’s use of the trust to the privileges committee.
The manager of opposition business said Wallace, the new Speaker, needed to consider giving the issue precedence. “If this matter is allowed to stand, we might as well not have a register of members’ interests at all,” Burke said.
“If what the member for Pearce has done is allowed to stand, it means any MP can set up a trust and instruct the trustee to accept donations on a confidential basis only, and then rake in the cash from any source all the while saying well I couldn’t tell you … where my donations are coming from because they were given on the basis of confidentiality.”
Burke said trust arrangements of that nature could allow federal MPs to get around a ban on foreign donations. He said the privileges committee needed to examine the precedent.
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.
Porter’s colleagues are continuing to speculate that he won’t re-contest the next federal election, and could announce a decision to retire from politics over the coming parliamentary fortnight.
Wallace said he would consider his position on the specific issues raised by Burke and come back to the House “as is customary”.