Christian Porter’s declaration that part of his legal fees in a defamation case were paid by a “blind trust” did not breach parliamentary rules, a powerful lower house committee has concluded, while calling for them to be updated.
A report by the privileges committee following an investigation into the former attorney general’s disclosure that he’d received funds from the “Legal Services Trust” calls for the rules to be changed to uphold the “intent and integrity” of the register of interests.
The committee says MPs should provide the “greatest” transparency on the source of gifts.
The report, to be tabled in parliament on Tuesday, will see Porter escape sanction for his update to the register revealing the trust part-paid his legal fees for his defamation case against the ABC and reporter Louise Milligan.
The committee, chaired by Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, reached a consensus decision declining to uphold Labor’s complaint that Porter had broken the rules.
However, the committee noted all members should seek to provide the greatest level of transparency in disclosing the sources of gifts received by them.
It concluded that – as with all members – it was up to Porter whether to provide further information about the source of gifts.
Labor defeated a bid by some Liberal members to table the report after parliament finishes its 2021 sittings – which could have pushed it beyond a possible announcement from Porter about whether he intends to recontest his Western Australian seat of Pearce or quit politics at the next election.
Porter revealed the gift in September but said that as a “potential beneficiary” of what he described as a blind trust he had no access to information about the source of the funds.
In October, the Morrison government blocked a move to refer Porter to the privileges committee by asking it to consider the rules on funding legal cases generally. Nevertheless, the committee continued to examine a complaint from the shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, into Porter’s disclosure.
Porter maintains he has properly disclosed his interests in accordance with both the rules and the ministerial standards, but he resigned as a minister in September on the basis the issue had become an “unhelpful distraction” for the government.
The register of interest rules require MPs to declare “registrable interests of which the member is aware” including gifts worth more than $750 from official sources or more than $300 from other sources.
But the rules also state that gifts from other sources “need not be registered unless the member judges that an appearance of conflict of interest may be seen to exist”. Explanatory notes suggest this exception applies for gifts received “from family members or personal friends in a purely personal capacity”.
In parliamentary debate, Labor’s Tony Burke labelled the trust a “brown paper bag stitched together by lawyers”. The former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has called the disclosure a “shocking affront to transparency”.
Burke noted Porter’s public assurances that no “foreign donors” or people on the lobbyist register had donated to the trust. “So he has made clear that he can find out whose money is in this trust, from which he has personally benefited for a personal bill,” Burke said.
Dreyfus’s complaint similarly argued that Porter’s reasons for not disclosing were not valid, and queried whether he had “acted contrary to house resolutions on the registration of members’ interests”.
Guardian Australia understands that after the committee wrote to Porter giving him a right of reply, the backbencher disputed Dreyfus’ interpretation of the rules and restated his belief that no appearance of a conflict of interest existed.
On the day he resigned from cabinet, 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 he did not want to expose people who donated to the trust to “become targets of the social media mob”.
The report deals only with the Dreyfus complaint about Porter, not the general referral by the leader of the house, Peter Dutton, to clarify the rules around how to declare gifts from third parties to fund personal legal matters.
Peter Dutton has asked the privileges committee to clarify the rules about declaration of donations for legal funds - but it's no inquiry, and no substitute for a referral into Porter's declaration.#auspol pic.twitter.com/ciG4VC8wc5
— Paul Karp (@Paul_Karp) October 20, 2021
In October, Labor rejected a suggestion from Dutton that could have resulted in taxpayers footing the bill for MPs’ defamation cases because it could be considered a “workplace entitlement”.
Guardian Australia contacted Porter for comment.