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Scott Morrison has told Christian Porter he wants to resolve controversy around his acceptance of funding from a blind trust to part pay his legal fees and sought advice from his department on whether ministerial standards have been met.
A spokesman for the prime minister confirmed on Wednesday evening that Morrison had discussed the matter with the industry minister, after a storm of controversy erupted over Porter’s failure to disclose the source of the funds.
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 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”.
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.
A spokesman 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”.
“No taxpayers’ funds were used in meeting the costs of the minister’s actions against the ABC and Milligan, which have now concluded.”
A spokesperson for Morrison told Guardian Australia: “The prime minister is taking this matter seriously and has discussed the matter with the minister today.”
“The prime minister is seeking advice from his department on any implications for the ministerial standards and any actions the minister must take to ensure that he meets the standards.”
The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, said that Morrison had kicked off “another farcical ‘inquiry’” from his department head and former chief of staff, Phil Gaetjens, in response to “yet another outrageous scandal”.
“This is nothing more than political cover for Scott Morrison,” Dreyfus said. “Yet again, Mr Morrison does not want to take responsibility.
“There’s no need for an inquiry. Mr Morrison should do his job, enforce his own ministerial standards and tell Mr Porter to either give the money back, or come clean on who his financial backers are.”
Guardian Australia is aware that supporters of Christian Porter approached members of the West Australian legal and business community seeking to rally support for his case.
In May Porter declined to rule out that a benefactor might pick up the bill for his defamation case but claimed to have received unsolicited offers of money from supporters.
“I’m not at the point that I’m crowdfunding … I haven’t taken people up on those emails,” Porter told Sky News at the time, while reserving the right to update his disclosure register in future if he did accept support.
On Wednesday the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, labelled it “unbelievable and absurd” that Porter doesn’t know the source of the funds while transparency experts have called on him to disclose at least who manages the trust, if known.
The Prime Minister once said "the standard you walk past, is the standard you accept."
The Prime Minister cannot walk past this.
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) September 15, 2021
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”.
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.
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”.
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On Wednesday the Greens leader, Adam Bandt, announced he would “seek to move a motion of no confidence in Christian Porter when parliament resumes”.
“Ministers shouldn’t take donations without disclosing who they’re from,” he said.
The Australian Electoral Commission has advised Porter’s receipt of legal fees is unlikely to breach electoral law because it “does not prohibit members of parliament from receiving anonymous or foreign donations in their individual capacity outside of a candidacy (electoral) period”.
The Transparency International Australia chief executive, Serena Lillywhite, told Guardian Australia “basic due diligence would require knowing and disclosing who ultimately stumped up the money, who manages the Legal Services Trust, and when the Trust was established”.