Scott Morrison has pointedly left in doubt the future of Christian Porter as Attorney-General, saying he is presently considering advice on Porter’s situation in the context of the “ministerial guidelines”.
Morrison’s statement heightened speculation about a cabinet reshuffle after parliament adjourns this week until the May budget.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, currently on medical leave with heart problems but due back to work on April 2, is considered unlikely to stay in her portfolio.
It was learned on Wednesday that on medical advice she would not attend the Raisina Dialogue on April 13 in India.
Morrison’s failure to clarify Porter’s future comes a week before he is due to resume his duties as first law officer, after taking mental health leave in the wake of being accused of a 1988 rape, which he denies.
It was the second time in two days the Prime Minister had indicated he was still mulling advice about Porter.
In parliament on Wednesday, opposition leader Anthony Albanese asked whether Morrison had received advice from the Solicitor-General about Porter’s portfolio responsibilities.
Albanese also noted Morrison had previously confirmed he had sought advice from his department in relation to the Attorney-General and ministerial standards.
“Is the Prime Minister preparing to make his Attorney-General a part-time minister or is he preparing to drop him all together?” Albanese asked.
Morrison said he was considering “that advice with my department secretary, in terms of the application against the ministerial guidelines”.
“When I have concluded that assessment […] I’ll make a determination and I’ll make an announcement at that time.”
The assessment of Porter’s position follows his launch of federal court action against the ABC over its February 26 report that the allegation of rape made by a now deceased woman had been sent in a letter to several parliamentarians including Morrison.
It has already been announced Porter will not deal with anything to do with the federal court or the ABC.
Last week Morrison said he had sought advice from the Solicitor-General about the scope of the Attorney-General’s “portfolio responsibilities in light of the defamation law suit”.
Porter is also Minister for Industrial Relations and Leader of the House of Representatives.
Depending on the content of the Solicitor-General’s advice, Morrison has the options of further carve outs of Porter’s Attorney-General responsibilities to avoid conflicts of interest, standing him aside, or removing him altogether from that position.
If he wished to show some continued support for Porter, he could leave him in cabinet holding just the industrial relations job.
Reynolds went on medical leave after coming under attack for her handling of the Brittany Higgins matter. Higgins alleged she was raped by a colleague in the office of Reynolds, then defence industry minister, in 2019.
Meanwhile, Tasmanian Liberal senator Eric Abetz on Wednesday was accused by the Speaker of the Tasmanian parliament, Sue Hickey, of denigrating Higgins.
Hickey told the Tasmanian parliament that on March 1 at a citizenship ceremony in Hobart she had casually asked Abetz whether Porter was the minister involved in the historical rape allegation.
She said Abetz had replied it was Porter, “but not to worry, the woman is dead and the law will protect him”.
According to Hickey, Abetz “then said ‘as for that Higgins girl, anybody so disgustingly drunk who would sleep with anybody could have slept with one of our spies and put the security of the nation at risk’”.
Abetz said he categorically denied “Ms Hickey’s defamatory allegations under Parliamentary privilege”.
“As someone who was on the inaugural committee of a women’s shelter and its honorary legal adviser for a decade prior to entering parliament, I reject outright her suggestions and gross mischaracterisation of our discussion,” Abetz said.
“It’s noteworthy Ms Hickey has made her assertions some 3 weeks after she alleges they occurred.
"At no stage has Ms Hickey ever raised concerns with me about any of our conversations.”
Abetz suggested Hickey was motivated by Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein telling her on Sunday she would not be endorsed by the Liberal party for the next state election.
After the conversation with Gutwein, Hickey said she had been “effectively sacked” from the Liberal Party. “It appears that the men in dark suits are firmly in control and there is no place for small ‘l’ Liberal women who refuse to kowtow or be subservient to the dominant males.”
In 2018 Hickey won the speakership with Labor and Greens support, against the Liberal candidate.
Abetz said that “on her way out the door she is trying to destroy the party”.
Hickey hit back in another statement in parliament on Wednesday, accusing Abetz of “very grubby politics”. She stood by her account and said, “I have witnesses who can testify that I told them of the discussion at the event and immediately afterwards”.
Late Wednesday the ABC reported that Gutwein had written to Morrison requesting he consider Hickey’s allegations against Abetz.
It said that in a written statement Gutwein said Hickey had told him several weeks ago Abetz had made offensive comments but had not gone to the level of detail she had raised in state parliament.
“As Ms Hickey has outlined her allegations in more detail in the Parliament, this afternoon I have written to the Prime Minister and requested that he consider the matters raised.”