PM asks Porter to relinquish duties
Attorney-General Christian Porter has agreed to step away from his portfolio responsibility for the ABC and the Federal Court to avoid any conflicts of interest when he returns to work - at the request of the Prime Minister.
Mr Porter has agreed to the request to reflect the fact that he has launched defamation action against the ABC's Four Corners program in the Federal Court.
News.com.au has confirmed that the Prime Minister's approach reflects legal advice that the Morrison Government sought from the Australian Government Solicitor out of "an abundance of caution" to avoid any perceived conflicts.
In practice, it means he will relinquish responsibility for the appointment of judges to the Federal Court while the legal action is ongoing.
If there are any discussions around funding for the ABC at the expenditure review committee or in cabinet he will recuse himself from those discussions.
His office has confirmed his mental health leave will now end on March 31. He commenced the leave earlier this month after choosing to publicly identify himself as the subject of an unsubstantiated historical rape allegation.
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The defamation action, launched in the Federal Court, centres on an ABC online report that revealed an anonymous letter had been sent to the Prime Minister outlining serious allegations that an unnamed cabinet minister was accused of raping a teenager in 1988.
According to the statement of claim filed with the court, Mr Porter is suing over another online piece associated with another Four Corners report last year that Mr Porter claims implied he had "a reputation for making unwanted sexual advances".
Mr Porter completely denies the allegation of rape and has indicated that he never had consensual or non-consensual sex with the Adelaide woman who accused him of a historical rape in 1988, when he was 17 years old and the woman was 16. He has never been charged and NSW Police have said the investigation is closed.
His lawyers will allege the ABC report involved "false allegations against him in relation to a person who he met when he was a teenager".
"Although he was not named, the article made allegations against a senior cabinet minister and the attorney general was easily identifiable to many Australians as the subject of the allegations," his lawyer Rebekah Giles said.
Earlier, the Prime Minister was asked by Labor frontbencher Mark Dreyfus in question time how any potential conflicts of interest would be managed when he returns to work.
"In the light of the serious sexual assault allegations levelled against the Attorney-General and a related defamation action, can the Prime Minister tell the House what ministerial functions he intends to allow the Attorney-General to perform?,'' Mr Dreyfus said.
The Prime Minister confirmed that his responsibilities would be altered to reflect the fact he is suing the national broadcaster for defamation.
"In an abundance of caution and to avoid any perception of conflicts of interests that may arise, the Attorney-General, when he returns, will not perform certain functions of his office that may relate to the Federal Court or the ABC,'' Mr Morrison told Parliament.
The Prime Minister did not refer to legal advice from the Australian Government solicitor, but two government sources confirmed this was sought prior to the decision and it recommended the steps taken.
The defamation case that Mr Porter has launched will be heard by a Federal Court judge who was appointed by the Rudd Government, not Mr Porter.
Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek also noted that the former Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson SC had urged the PM to seek advice on an independent inquiry from the current Solicitor-General.
"Why did the Prime Minister not seek the Solicitor-General's advice before he declared that the rule of law would be harmed by an independent inquiry into sexual assault allegations against the Attorney-General? Who provided the legal advice to support the Prime Minister's declaration?,'' she asked.
"The advice that I followed and the advice that I sought came from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. I also consulted with the Commissioner of the Federal Police in handling these matters and raising these matters with the Attorney-General,'' the Prime Minister replied.
"There are established processes for dealing with all members of this House, former members of this House and any Australians: they all face one rule of law. They all face one rule of law."
The Prime Minister also noted the Labor Party needed to address allegations of sexual harassment in its own ranks following news.com.au's report of women sharing harrowing tales on a private Facebook group.
"The double standards that the Labor Party is seeking to apply here are simply quite galling,'' he said.
"When they're standing in glass houses, they should not be throwing these types of stones."
While the Prime Minister has been criticised for not personally reading the allegations raised by friends of Mr Porter's accuser, he said he was fully briefed on the contents.
"I was very familiar with the contents of those documents,'' he said.
"I asked the commissioner of police whether it would be appropriate for me to raise those matters directly with the Attorney-General and he said yesterday - he said yes and I did so immediately. These matters ultimately are matters that have to be determined by police and prosecutors at the end of the day.
"I stand by the comments I said on that occasion, because it is important, Mr Speaker, that the earnestness in which these matters are brought forward by individuals is believed, so they can be taken forward to the police. But, their ultimate truth and veracity and whether matters can be taken forward is a matter for the police. That's our justice system. We act in accordance with the justice system and the rule of law."
Labor's legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus said Mr Porter's Attorney General's portfolio should have been temporarily handed to another minister.
"Completely, and that's what should have happened. That is the accepted means of dealing with questions of fitness for office when they come up,'' he told ABC TV.
Originally published as PM asks Porter to relinquish duties