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  • John McDonnell

Two myths – delayed Aus-EU trade talks and Christian Porter's 'conflict of interest'

In a spot of bother? Christian Porter (left) with Deputy PM Joyce in Question Time in June

The Australian media is fond of hyperventilating over what they see as significant policy failures or political missteps. This is often a response to unfounded claims by the opposition about the consequences of government action. The EU trade talks and the Christian Porter matter are two such issues.

Don’t be fooled: the EU trade talks were never going to be completed before the Australian election, which will likely occur between March and May next year. There is no intention on the part of the European Commission to complete the negotiations on the Australian/EU free trade agreement before the French presidential elections are held in April. This has nothing to do with the cancellation of the French submarine project and everything to do with French politics.

The French presidential election will be held in early April next year. Under the French constitution, the agricultural departments' (state equivalents) citizens’ votes are worth twice as much as the votes of French citizens living in the cities. As a result, no candidate can be elected President without the support of French farmers. It is no coincidence that French farmers are the most subsidised and protected in the world. Any move to threaten the special privileges of the rural French are met with open hostility.

On the other hand, the main objective of Australian negotiators within the free trade agreement is to obtain greater access to the European market for Australian agricultural products.

For obvious reasons, the European Commission is likely to give Australia minimal concessions in agricultural sectors of interest to France - and will delay announcing such concessions until after the presidential election.

In any event, the European Union is not noted for its alacrity in completing trade agreements. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada was provisionally finalised in 2017 but is yet to be signed by all the member states of the EU. So, if some know-nothing tells you that there are problems with the Australian free trade agreement with Europe because of the subs, take the word of the French ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault: it has got nothing to do with submarines.

Christian Porter is in all sorts of trouble because a group of well-meaning citizens decided that he had had a rough trot at the hands of the ABC, and they would give him a leg-up with his legal fees. They realised that this would open them up to attacks by the media, social and otherwise, and decided to remain anonymous. They established a trust and withheld their identities from everyone except the trustee (presumably the solicitor who established the trust, who would be covered by solicitor-client privilege).

It is known that Mr Porter didn’t know who the donors to the trust were but also that he refused to ask the trustee for their names. It is not known whether the trustee paid the money to Mr Porter’s lawyers and if they did whether Mr Porter can get it back.

Nevertheless, the prime minister had a discussion with Mr Porter, following which he, Porter, resigned as a minister but without specifying a reason for doing so.

Now, the opposition is calling for Mr Porter to return the money, which technically he can’t because he doesn’t have it, or resign as a member of parliament because he has a perceived conflict of interest.

However, it is logically impossible for him to have a conflict of interest because his good Samaritans and their interests are unknown to him. Of course, if they identified themselves to him and asked for a favour, he would be duty-bound to put them on his register of interests, but at the moment he can’t.

Tony Burke, the leader of opposition business in the house of representatives, says he is preparing a referral to the privileges committee of the house for an investigation into a potential conflict of interest by Mr Porter.

In the circumstances, this appears to lack any serious legal substance. Unfortunately, the only lawyer with advocacy skills sufficient to argue the case, on the coalition side in the lower house, is Mr Porter himself.


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