The Morrison government has blocked Labor’s bid to refer 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.
The Speaker of the house, Tony Smith, on Wednesday agreed there was a “prima facie case” Porter should be investigated for a possible breach of disclosure rules, but the government voted down the referral, the first time that’s happened since federation.
Peter Dutton, the leader of the house, instead asked the privileges committee to clarify the rules after claiming other members faced similar questions about the identity of donors to crowdsourced funds for defamation cases.
The procedural victory means Porter is likely to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of his declaration until the rules are clarified – which may push the issue off the agenda until after the next election. Porter plans to recontest his Western Australian seat of Pearce.
Labor’s Tony Burke in a statement accused the government of protecting Porter so “we may never learn the truth about who paid Mr Porter’s legal bills and what they may expect in return”.
In September, Porter declared that the Legal Services Trust had part-paid his legal fees arising from his private defamation case against the ABC. The former attorney general said as a “potential beneficiary” of the blind trust he had no access to information about the source of the funds.
On Monday, Labor moved to refer Porter to the privileges committee to investigate whether he was in contempt of the House of Representatives resolutions relating to disclosure of members’ interests.
Porter maintains that 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 Wednesday, Smith said the purpose of the register was to record interests that “may or may be seen” to conflict with a member’s public duty and he noted that members were advised to “bear in mind the purpose and spirit” of the requirement.
Smith ruled that after “careful consideration” he was “satisfied that a prima facie case has been made out and I’m willing to give precedence to a motion concerning privilege or contempt”.
He noted that “does not imply a conclusion that a breach of privilege or contempt has occurred”.
Burke, the manager of opposition business, then moved for a referral to the privileges committee to consider whether Porter had “created a precedent which threatens the integrity of the register of members’ interests”, had “knowingly provided false or misleading information”, and had committed a contempt of the house.
Burke said since federation “no member of parliament” had used a trust to “receive income and not let anyone know who is paying”.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said it was “nonsense” that Porter could provide no further details of donors. Albanese questioned “how did they know where to put the money”.
Dutton said Labor’s request to give precedence to a motion did not ask “the Speaker to provide a verdict”, signalling to government MPs that it was open to them to decline to act on the finding a prima facie case existed.
Dutton said the referral raised “a much broader issue”, claiming that “the same transparency issues” arose with members who received reimbursement for legal costs from their political party or used pages such as GoFundMe to crowdsource funds.
Dutton name-checked Sarah Hanson-Young as one senator who had accepted GoFundMe donations and claimed some of her donors had used aliases such as “A Non” and “Anne559” to disguise their identity.
Hanson-Young received eight donations above the $300 threshold, providing names that clearly identified the source, although monikers were allowed for the remaining 1,800 donations below the threshold.
Dutton said he had written to the chair of the privileges committee, Russell Broadbent, to consider the broader issues, claiming this made the referral of Porter “redundant”.
Dutton asked the committee to consider clarifying the rules rather than consider whether Porter had breached the rules as they stand.
After Dutton advised the government would vote against the referral, the house defeated Labor’s motion 52 votes to 49.
“What the House has just done is unprecedented,” Burke said, warning in the House that the government vote would mean the Australian public would “never find out if someone is bribed” by someone seeking to influence them.
On the day he resigned from the ministry, 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 that he did not want to expose people who donated to the trust to “become targets of the social media mob”, deciding to relinquish his cabinet position instead of “seeking to pressure the trust to break individuals’ confidentiality”.
Porter sued the ABC and reporter Louise Milligan over an online article that alleged an unidentified cabinet minister had been accused of rape in January 1988 in a dossier sent to Scott Morrison and three other parliamentarians. Porter subsequently identified himself as the minister and strenuously denied the allegations.
In late May, Porter agreed to discontinue the case, after the ABC agreed to add an editor’s note to the article stating it did not intend to suggest Porter had committed the alleged offence. The ABC agreed to pay Porter’s costs of mediation but not damages.
Hanson-Young told Guardian Australia more than half her donations were less than $20 which is “what a true community crowdfund looks like”.
“I have declared all donations in the spirit of members and senators interests and Mr Porter should do the same,” she said.