Acting prime minister Barnaby Joyce has endorsed Christian Porter to return to the ministry in future, just one day after the former industry minister resigned over his legal fees being paid by a trust with money from unknown donors.
On Monday, Joyce told reporters in Canberra Porter was “incredibly intelligent” and had been an “incredibly capable” minister, suggesting he could return after seeking re-election in his Western Australian seat of Pearce.
But while the second most senior figure in the government laid a red carpet for his return, Labor vowed the controversy over Porter was not over, insisting he must pay the money back or disclose the funds’ source.
Guardian Australia understands when parliament returns in October, Labor will seek to refer the matter to the privileges committee, for a ruling and possible sanction for failing to disclose more details of the gift.
On Tuesday last week Porter revealed in an update to his register of interests that “a blind trust known as the Legal Services Trust” had paid part of his fees for his now discontinued defamation case against the ABC, over its story revealing an unnamed cabinet minister had been accused of sexual assault alleged to have occurred in 1988. Porter identified himself as the subject but vehemently denied the claim.
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”.
On Sunday Porter resigned, which prime minister Scott Morrison said was appropriate given he was not capable of disclosing the donors who set up the trust. But Porter accepted no wrongdoing, insisting he had complied both with the rules of MPs’ register of interests and ministerial standards.
On Monday Joyce described Porter as the “champion” of Pearce, a usually safe Liberal seat that is now in play courtesy of a redistribution cutting its margin to 5.2% and Labor riding high in Western Australia.
“[Porter has] been an incredibly capable minister both in the Western Australian state parliament and in federal parliament,” Joyce said.
“Yep, he has had a bad day at the wicket, no doubt about that, and that issue has been dealt with.”
Joyce recommended that “such a capable politician” should “be given another chance at some future time in a senior role” after “[going] over to the corridor of the nearly dead over there, [staring] at the commcars going in and out”, an apparent reference to a spell on the backbench.
“You’ll have a bit of time on your hands but you can use it effectively, and I’m sure he will.”
Joyce noted the ministerial standards no longer applied to Porter, and that he should remain an MP because “he has not done anything illegal”.
Joyce said he had some sympathy for Porter because it “costs an awful lot of money” to defend an allegation and the alternative was to “basically suffer the consequences of an assumed guilt”.
Porter agreed to discontinue his case against the ABC in May, settling for the ABC paying the costs of mediation and the addition of an editor’s note that the meaning that Porter was guilty was “not intended by the ABC [and] is regretted”.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, told ABC Perth that Porter’s resignation “certainly doesn’t” end the matter because “there are so many questions which remain unanswered”.
“Who provided this money? Why was it provided? How was it provided? Is there any conflict of interest? Does anyone who provided money have contracts with the government?
“Mr Porter has made a declaration in his pecuniary interest return, but it’s one that doesn’t provide the appropriate detail, which is why he remains in breach of his obligations.”
Albanese said if the precedent is allowed to stand, MPs could “receive substantial donations … and no one will ever know who paid for it”.
“Of course he should give the money back. He should never have received it on an anonymous basis in the first place.”
The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, told reporters in Melbourne that Labor “intends to raise this in the parliament in every possible way”, adding “it’s clearly a matter that the privileges committee could look at”.
The Greens deputy leader, Larissa Waters, has already written to the privileges committee asking it to investigate.
Porter maintains 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.
Joyce said this will result in “further deliberations” in parliament but said, given he hadn’t “done anything illegal”, any decision regarding paying the money back would be up to Porter.
On Sunday Porter released a statement again categorically denying the historical sexual assault accusation and saying he had been subjected to “trial by media”.
He said he was contacted by “thousands of ordinary people” who had expressed disgust at his treatment and wanted to help, some through making financial contributions to a trust “on the basis of confidentiality and a belief that their contribution would remain confidential within the rules of disclosure”.
Porter said he would not force his supporters to be identified, warning that the “the trial by mob” he had faced may turn on them if they were.