Politics Analysis

Distrust in Government and Coalition harms Porter's claims of innocence

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons

The Coalition's recent history of deception makes Christian Porter's protestations of innocence harder to believe, writes Alan Austin.

WESTMINSTER PRINCIPLES of honourable public service require ministers of the Crown to tell the truth. They oblige a prime minister to remove from cabinet any minister who lies. This standard has applied through most of Australia’s history and is still honoured in most Westminster democracies today.

The Liberal Party abandoned it approximately twenty years ago.

Now, Australia is seeing why ministerial truthfulness is essential. We are seeing in stark terms what happens when this principle is trashed.

Long history of truthfulness demanded

In 1963, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, lied about his affair with Christine Keeler, believed to be the mistress of a Soviet spy. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sacked Profumo for lying, despite no actual security breach.

British Trade and Industry Secretary Leon Brittan resigned in 1986 after failing to disclose his role in releasing a letter in the Westland affair. Henry McLeish resigned as First Minister of Scotland in 2001 following deceptions regarding his finances.

New Zealand’s Immigration Minister Lianne Dalziel resigned in 2004 after lying about information released to the media. Also in 2004, Boris Johnson was dumped as Shadow Arts Minister for misleading his party leader. He has since been "rehabilitated".

In 2017, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May sacked Minister for the Cabinet Office Damian Green for lying about pornography on his computer. She also sin-binned her International Development Secretary Priti Patel for fibbing about meetings with Israeli officials.

Prime Minister Antti Rinne of Finland resigned in December 2019 after being sprung lying about postal system reforms.

One lie and you’re out of the ministry is how it should be. This is how it largely was in Australia until John Howard came along.

Australia’s recent history

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam sacked Treasurer Jim Cairns in 1975 for denying he had approved a transaction which he had actually authorised (although Cairns insisted it was unknowing). Whitlam also sacked Minerals and Energy Minister Rex Connor for misleading statements about contact with a Pakistani financier.

In a slight twist on this principle, Andrew Peacock resigned as Industrial Relations Minister in 1981 in a dramatic dummy-spit.

He claimed Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser:

“... has consistently allowed false and damaging reports to be published about me and my capacity as a senior minister.”

In 1982, Fraser sacked Health Minister Michael Mackellar and Consumer Affairs Minister John Moore after they had been untruthful on a customs form reporting an imported television. Intriguingly, a 1979 report into the conduct of National Party Deputy Leader Ian Sinclair found he had made misleading statements. While vigorously denying the charges, Sinclair immediately resigned as Primary Industry Minister. A trial the following year cleared him of all charges, allowing his return to the Cabinet.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke maintained the tradition when in 1988 he sacked Minister for Arts, Sport, the Environment and Tourism John Brown for misleading the Parliament over a contentious contract. That was Hawke’s only sacking for the telling of falsehoods.

The Howard legacy

Then came John Howard, who asserted upon gaining the top job he would require higher ministerial standards than his predecessors. But he had not reckoned with the declining calibre of Liberal and National Party MPs. In his first 18 months, more than ten ministers committed sackable offences with seven actually dismissed. These were Jim Short, Brian Gibson, Bob Woods, Geoff Prosser, John Sharp, Peter McGauran and David Jull.

Unable to replace offenders at the rate required, Howard was forced to reconfigure his sin list. Lying was no longer on it. Besides, Howard was prone to failing to tell the truth himself, as noted by a Liberal Party member who in 2004 labelled him “the lying rodent”.

With the “children overboard” scandal, the waterfront dispute and multiple other crises, ministers soon found fabrications commonplace. Removal from ministerial office for falsehoods became rare. Santo Santoro's 2007 sacking for lying to the Prime Minister about his dodgy share trades was an exception.

At the state level, Liberals still honoured the Westminster principle. South Australian Premier John Olsen resigned in October 2001 after the Clayton Report found he had given 'misleading, inaccurate and dishonest evidence to a judicial inquiry'.

Federally, the Rudd and Gillard years were relatively free of ministerial iniquity, with no resignations demanded. But with the Coalition returned in 2013, an avalanche of lies from Federal Cabinet followed.

More than sixty falsehoods by incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott have been archived by various publications. Former Treasurer Joe Hockey’s multiple lies have been chronicled. Porky pies Scott Morrison has cooked up are heroically recorded.

Recently-retired Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has been fact-checked to show his mistruths, while current Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is on track to outdo Tony Abbott. Acting Attorney-General, while Porter is on leave, Michaelia Cash, has been exposed for her falsehoods. Christian Porter’s own tawdry history was presented neatly by IA colleague John Wren. And finally, the Liberal Party was called out on blatantly false claims about its history.

Porter’s plight partly self-inflicted

Thus, Morrison Government ministers find that it is harder to believe their words and accounts whenever their veracity is challenged.

Porter could have remedied this in part himself had he decided on becoming Attorney-General to declare that ministerial integrity was back. Had that happened, had his colleagues complied and had the alleged rape not occurred, voters might now largely believe him.

Alan Austin’s defamation matter is nearly over. You can read the latest update here and contribute to the crowd-funding campaign HEREAlan Austin is an Independent Australia columnist and freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @alanaustin001.

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