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Scott Morrison has refused to guarantee Christian Porter will keep his job, saying he will await advice from his department as to whether the industry minister’s declaration that a blind trust part paid his personal legal fees met ministerial standards.
On Friday the prime minister told ABC AM he was “not going to speculate” when asked if Porter could keep his job if he paid the money back to the Legal Services Trust.
Morrison also described the blind trust as a “complicated” and “not ordinary” set of arrangements he is still seeking to understand.
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”.
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”.
On Wednesday Morrison told Porter he wants to resolve controversy and sought advice from his department on whether ministerial standards have been met. On Thursday Morrison declined to say if Porter had given him advance notice before publicly declaring the payment.
On Friday Morrison said he had sought advice from his department because he always acts “precisely” and with the the “best advice possible”.
“I always want to ensure ministerial standards are fully understood in these contexts and the right decisions are made,” he told ABC’s AM.
Asked if it could be inferred Porter would be asked to resign after the departmental advice, as Bridget McKenzie did over the sports grants controversy in February 2020, Morrison replied “I don’t think you can confer [infer] anything”.
“I think you can take it that I’m following a process which you would expect a prime minister to do, who believes strongly in ministerial standards.”
Morrison again evaded directly answering whether he knew about the blind trust ahead of the public declaration. Morrison said: “He [Porter] only most recently became aware of becoming a beneficiary and that beneficiary payment becomes available to him.
“So, these are compli[cated], these are not ordinary arrangements that’s why we’re seeking to have a full understanding of them.”
Morrison refused to say whether he had asked Porter what efforts he had made to discover the source of the money, but said their conversation was about ensuring they had a shared view that ministerial standards are always maintained.
Morrison said he was “not going to speculate” on whether Porter paying the money back would be sufficient to keep his job.
He was asked: “If, for example Mr Porter gave back the money would that mean he could absolutely keep his ministerial job?”
Morrison: “I’m just not going to speculate on it. I’m saying we’re taking the appropriate advice to make the right decisions to ensure ministerial standards are upheld.”
Morrison told 3AW he was taking the issue “extremely seriously” because it “needs to be dealt with appropriately” and Porter understood that.
In response to a question suggesting a radio broadcaster would be sacked for taking a blind payment, Morrison replied: “Until I get that further advice then I just don’t think it helps to speculate – I understand the point you’re making … that’s why I’m taking it so seriously.”
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.
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Porter insists the trust fund’s contributions to his legal fees were “were made to me, or were for my benefit, in a purely personal capacity”.
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.
The former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described Porter’s declaration as a “shocking affront to transparency”, likening it to saying “my legal fees were paid by a guy in a mask who dropped off a chaff bag full of cash”.
But on Thursday the assistant treasurer, Michael Sukkar, backed Porter, telling ABC TV he had “no doubt” Porter would “meet the code” and to do anything beyond inquiring into the rules would be “gratuitous”.