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Keeping Mr Porter’s secrets

September 23, 2021

Comment by Greg Ray

An external observer of Australian politics in 2021 might be excused for imagining that there was some far-reaching network striving to ensure that the activities of – and circumstances surrounding – former attorney-general Christian Porter are hidden forever from the eyes of the electorate. Of course that can’t possibly be true. It’s just the way that our democracy, our police and our legal and judicial systems work.

The defence that the ABC was going to use in Mr Porter’s much-trumpeted but rapidly aborted defamation case has been suppressed and buried, so that’s a forever mystery. And it seems that the identity of the generous donors who chipped in a huge sum – reportedly $1million – to fund this failed legal action is also destined to remain a mystery in perpetuity.

In case you didn’t know, it turns out there is a catch in Australia’s “freedom of information” laws (I call them freedom FROM information laws) that allows pending requests that relate to a particular minister to be deleted as soon as that minister leaves the role. It’s a handy little catch, quite useful for governments who might like to keep secrets. In the case of Mr Porter, it means that various FOI requests to the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (that’s where he went after he couldn’t be attorney-general anymore because of you know what) are now being torn up and shredded. Because he isn’t the minister anymore.

Mr Porter’s magical “blind trust”

People were trying to find out about Mr Porter’s magical “blind trust”, where rich folk can pump in wads of cash for their favourite politician’s wants and needs without anybody ever knowing who they are. It would seem handy for voters to learn more about this concept, since if it is allowed to stand then other politicians with problems that need fixing will probably want to use it. And there is no hint at this stage that Mr Porter will be required to either reveal the donors or return the cash, so it looks like a very dangerous precedent has been set.

Killing FOI requests about the blind trust obviously suits those who want it all kept secret, and it turns out that giving Mr Porter a little holiday on the parliamentary back bench serves the dual purpose of “punishing” him for transgressing ministerial standards while also providing legal grounds for consigning questions about his transgression to oblivion.

Enter Senator Rex Patrick. If you haven’t heard of him he’s a South Australian senator who used to be part of Nick Xenophon’s team, a former navy submariner who has made government transparency something of an issue – much to the apparent disgust of both major parties. Earlier this year he succeeded in a bid to allow FOI requests relating to the national cabinet. The Morrison Government had been refusing to release any information from these meetings, claiming they were subject to the much-abused “cabinet-in-confidence” loophole so often used by governments to avoid scrutiny.

Senator Patrick has now announced he will challenge the FOI loophole relating to former ministers in court and perhaps try to move an amendment in Parliament. “People have a right to know how government is and was conducted. The idea that the resignation of a minister can somehow deny access by the public to matters which were being handled by that former minister is offensive,” he said.

I hope his court challenge succeeds, because it’s a pretty bad state of affairs if a government can instantly kill all FOI requests involving ministers by simply having a reshuffle or by giving a trouble-prone minister a little holiday on the back bench. You can see he won’t get support in Parliament since both the Coalition and Labor are obviously happy to have such a handy little loophole. As for Pauline Hanson, she’s already declared she won’t back Patrick in a vote because the secret cash for Mr Porter’s ABC court case was “a personal matter”. “This was not vote-buying. It was a few people supporting Mr Porter in a personal defamation case,” Ms Hanson said.

When you have a government dedicated to secrecy and no effective opposition, it’s good to have people like Senator Patrick on the job. More power to his arm, I say.

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