The federal finance minister, Simon Birmingham, has conceded Christian Porter’s anonymous donation declaration “is an unusual one” but refused to offer a personal opinion on whether ministers should accept funds without knowing the source.
The Coalition minister was repeatedly pressed on the issue during an interview with the ABC on Sunday. He stated it was not his job “to express personal views” when asked whether ministers of the crown should accept anonymous donations.
“It is my job as a minister to work as part of the government,” Birmingham said.
He said ministers had a duty to follow “the letter and spirit” of the ministerial guidelines and the prime minister had acted appropriately in asking for further advice from his department.
“The prime minister has made clear, this question, where a disclosure has been made, but the disclosure itself presents other questions, is an unusual one. That’s why he has sought precise and specific advice on that, as he’s done in relation to previous questions around conduct and compliance with the code of conduct.”
Porter’s future on the frontbench is under a cloud following Scott Morrison’s announcement he was seeking further advice on the issue. Porter declared he had received funds from a “blind trust” to help pay his legal fees for his now discontinued defamation case against the ABC and journalist Louise Milligan.
“The prime minister has done the right thing in this regard,” Birmingham said on Sunday.
“We should all act in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the ministerial code of conduct. The reason that we have the code of conduct in place, the reason we have disclosure obligations in place, is to provide transparency. The prime minister is rightly seeking advice to make sure that in this case, where a disclosure has been made, he is appropriately and fully informed around whether that disclosure meets that standard and, if it doesn’t, what action needs to be taken.”
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The code states ministers “must not seek or accept any kind of benefit or other valuable consideration either for themselves or for others in connection with performing or not performing any element of their official duties as a minister” and outlines that “ministers are required to exercise the functions of their public office unaffected by considerations of personal advantage or disadvantage.”
In his declaration, Porter said he had “no access to information about the conduct and funding of the trust”.
Last week, a spokesperson for the minister said Porter 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”.
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has been one of the most vocal critics of the move, calling it a “shocking affront to transparency.”
Birmingham said it was not for him to offer any “personal opinions” but said the prime minister had been right in acknowledging “that this instance raises some serious questions”.
“That’s why he has asked for precise and proper advice from his department, and I look forward to that being received, and the prime minister will, no doubt, then act on that advice accordingly.”
Morrison leaves for Washington early this week. He is scheduled to meet with fellow Quad leaders including the US president, Joe Biden, prime minister Narendra Modi of India and prime minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan.
On Friday, Morrison refused to answer one way or the other on whether Porter would keep his ministerial position, even if he returned the money.
“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,” the prime minister said.