Is Christian Porter fit to hold public office?

Mar 10, 2021
Scott Morrison Ministry

Any proper assessment of Christian Porter’s fitness for office would not only properly assess the sexual assault allegations but would his performance as a politician and as a minister. It would appear his personal failings mirror his abuse of political principle.

It began long before I had any knowledge of his private character or about the allegations of the rape of a schoolgirl 33 years ago. But it was strengthened by what I learnt in Louise Milligan’s Four Corners report about his character as a university student and young lawyer around Perth. Milligan, it seems, was unable to satisfy ABC lawyers in November that it was safe to broadcast the rape allegations, but it seems clear, in retrospect, that some of the material that was broadcast had been gathered in the context of the allegation.

It is apparent that his personal failings mirror his abuse of political principle. He emerges as a deeply unpleasant character, particularly in relation to drinking, to deeply sexist, misogynist and dismissive attitudes to women (and indeed other groups including the disabled) and to being, generally, a Hooray Henry sort of entitled buffoon of the type exemplified in Britain by the associates of David Cameron and Boris Johnson. He was frequently accused of inappropriate behaviour with women.

While he was teaching criminal law, he was said to have had a gratuitous focus on violent and sexually graphic material in the legal cases he taught. It was not necessarily different at the law school I attended but, for what it is worth, Porter was teaching in an era that was supposed to have absorbed some of the past 50 years of feminist insights.

A barrister, Kathleen Foley, told Four Corners:

“For a long time, Christian has benefited from the silence around his conduct and his behaviour, and the silence has meant that his behaviour has been tolerated and after a certain amount of time, the silence means that it’s condoned and that it’s considered acceptable. And I’m here because I don’t think that his behaviour should be tolerated, and it is not acceptable.”

None of this shows him to be guilty of the rape he so vehemently denies. But it says something of his character that an independent observer would be entitled to consider while assessing the wider questions about his personality, temperament and disposition. They certainly contrast with the posture of a strong ethical and moral base and deep religious conservatism.

All this sit alongside a record as Attorney-General of appointing Liberal Party cronies to high-paying quasi-judicial positions, outside the merit process.

It includes giving dubious secret advice permitting highly irregular distribution of grants for partisan purposes, interventions in deeply political prosecutions that violated principles of the Crown being a model litigant.

It involved his role as a social security minister administering the Robodebt scheme when he knew, and was concealing legal advice and quasi-judicial findings, that the scheme was illegal. The Robodebt process, like an increasing number of processes in the refugee system, has a reversed onus of proof, contrary to the rule of law to which he has so suddenly become attached.

Porter has carried on with a new type of approach to being law officer. Once, the first law officer had occasionally to stand at a distance from his colleagues, explaining what the law was, rather than presenting them with schemes, stratagems and dubious interpretations to assist ministers or agents to circumvent the will of the parliament. Once, the concept of the rule of law necessarily implied that public administration was circumscribed by guidelines that enforced equality of access to, and fair dealings from government.

Government law subverts basic principles

Under Porter and Morrison, particularly since the pandemic, we have shysters finding ways to subvert the law. Much government is occurring under discretion, without accountability or public reporting, and without the slightest attempt to offer all citizens an equal fair go.

Morrison may be chiefly at fault, but no one could suggest that Porter has demonstrated the slightest amount of spine in the way he has enabled it. It is for that sort of reason that he would be doing Australia a big favour by withdrawing from public life.

Nearly 50 years ago, Richard Nixon’s attempt to frustrate the various Watergate inquiries included the insistence that many of his claims for executive privilege were made not so much for his personal private advantage, but so as to preserve necessary freedom of action for future presidents. If the public were able to learn what was said in the Oval Office, he claimed, no one would be able to give a president frank and free advice ever again.

Indeed, the lawyer appearing for him told one court,

“The President wants me to argue that he is as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and is not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment.”

The US Supreme Court rejected the argument, and the power of presidents does not appear to have waned.

Porter’s argument that his refusal to resign is in defence of the rule of law, to prevent the creation of some circumstance whereby a person can be forced to resign by mere allegation, is entirely self-serving.

First, it is simply not true that he is under attack only because an allegation has been made. While the allegation is not enough to sustain a criminal prosecution, it can be examined in any number of contexts, including the courts, as any number of notorious cases involving alleged sexual harassment or unfair dismissal would show.

No process in prospect creates any risk of jail or fine, other than for perjury. If it puts at risk his position as a minister, that is not a position he holds by right but at the whim of the prime minister.

It is clear that he must go if and when Morrison thinks him a burden. He is that, if only as a perpetual distraction about the government’s treatment of women. There is simply no way in which a man of his character and disposition can become an asset rather than a liability.

Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine Morrison – marketer supreme – transforming himself, in the mind of Australian women, into a champion of the rights and dignity of woman. If he doesn’t already know that could never occur while Christian Porter is his legal adviser, he is not the politician I have thought.

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