21:11, January 01 329 0 theguardian.com

2018-01-01 21:11:03
Porter's new job needs more than locking up offenders and throwing away the key

The physical characteristics could not be more different. The high commissioner designate and former attorney general George Brandis is generously-proportioned, languid, tardy in making appointments and tabling reports, leaving findings by his agencies gathering dust, sometimes for years.

The incoming attorney general, Christian Porter, is sinewy, wound taut, a marathon runner, a Cleo magazine finalist for 1999’s Bachelor of the Year and a man in a hurry.

Actually, Porter started out life as a well-padded frat boy and counts losing 30 kilos in his late 20s as one of the proudest achievements.

Unsurprisingly, shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfus, in a press release headed “Out of the frying pan, into the fire”, thinks they share other qualities, namely undistinguished ministerial records.

Brandis we know only too well: leading the charge to unstitch protections under the Racial Discrimination Act; expansion of the state’s intrusion into private lives without having a clear idea of the meaning of metadata; flouting FOI laws; requiring his prior approval before agencies can seek the advice of the solicitor general; authorisation of an ASIO raid on an Australian lawyer; bullying the Human Rights Commission’s Gillian Triggs and trying to force her to resign; cuts to the community legal centres; defenestrating the Australia Council; and plum jobs on the administrative appeals tribunal for under-employed Liberal Party favourites.

Porter as social services minister presided over the “robodebt” fiasco where citizens on Centrelink benefits were sent threatening missives and ordered to pay back money that in many cases they did not have and did not owe. His uncreative approach to managing the social security budget has been one of slash and burn.

More than two years after the royal commission recommended a single redress scheme for childhood survivors of sexual abuse Porter had failed to get any state of territory to agree to the proposal.

Instead, on the day the royal commission held its final ceremonial sitting he was at the cricket in Perth, grinning broadly alongside his spiritual godfather John Howard.

His track record as attorney general for Western Australia also accumulated its fair share of unattractive litter. Cuts to legal aid accompanied by law and order schemes by the yard. He thought that criminals should be banned from drinking alcohol, that offenders serving community service orders should wear distinctive coloured vests, and that the right to silence should be pared back.

Porter introduced mandatory prison sentences for assaults against police officers, life for manslaughter, and stiffer penalties for drug dealers and fine defaulters.

The upshot has been a soaring rate of Indigenous incarceration in WA.

Prominent Western Australian criminal barrister Tom Percy QC is reported to have said that Porter is an old fashioned politician “because he really has no new ideas at all”.

... harsher penalties don’t prove anything and putting more people in jail does not prove anything either. But here he comes, not trying to find other solutions to crime, not finding other ways of dealing with people who need rehabilitation - but he is going to build another prison.”

Porter’s response is that “imprisonment is a really important part of the criminal justice response”. It’s just that other responses were missing in action.

The job of commonwealth attorney general requires more finesse than locking up offenders and throwing away the key. Shod of its homeland security functions the AG’s department still has much on its plate, including: a national consultation on native title reform; the federal courts restructure; family law reform; the legal assistance sector; handling continuing threats to anti-discrimination and human rights law; the ALRC’s recommendations on class actions and litigation funding; and implementation of a federal government anti-corruption commission.

Needless to say, the new attorney general, like his predecessor, has been an opponent of a charter or bill of rights for Australia, apparently because that might jeopardise anything other than a tough law n’ order agenda. It’s one of those conservative articles of faith that doesn’t withstand even moderate examination.

Porter is entrenched in Liberal party politics up to his armpits. Christian’s father, Charles “Chilla” Porter was state director of the Liberal party during the heyday of Sir Charles Court. His grandfather, Sir Charles Porter, was tapped by Robert Menzies to establish the Liberal party in Queensland, and he went on to become a member of the Bjelke-Petersen government.

It is hardly surprising that at the Hale School young Christian’s nickname was “Politics Porter”. Between late 1996 and October 1999 he did time at national law firm Clayton Utz when Julie Bishop was a partner in Perth fighting off the claims of mesothelioma sufferers.

By 2002 he was a senior state prosecutor in the WA office of public prosecutions, where he met his current wife, Jennifer, who was a law student and summer clerk in the criminal property confiscation team.

She told the Sunday Times newspaper in Perth in May 2011 :

People probably know that Christian has done five university degrees. Something a little less well known is that he is a sci-fi fan – Star Wars, Star Trek, Terminator, Battlestar Galactica, are all much loved in our household.”

He’s seen Star Wars a mind-numbing seven times.

Perth lawyers observe that he wasn’t adverse to appointing friends to the WA courts. One of his closest is James Edelman whom Porter appointed to the WA supreme court and from there he rapidly graduated to the federal court and to the high court. Christian Porter and James Edelman were peas in the pod at law school and as debating champs.

Porter was such a whizz at debates that it frequently appears in biographical notes that in 1997 he was ranked one of the “top five debaters in the world”. Some among the Perth legal fraternity unkindly dub the debating elite as “emus” – all feathers, no meat.

He appointed another close friend, Janine Pritchard, to the district court and later to the supreme court where she is widely regarded as a good appointment. Her husband, former DPP Joseph McGrath, was appointed to the supreme court by Porter’s successor as AG, Michael Mischin.

Another close friend, Jeremy Curthoys, was appointed by Porter to the district court, and later to get a supreme court berth under Mischin.

Robert Cock, the former DPP and prosecutorial colleague of the then WA AG, was appointed by Porter as a judge and head of the Prisoners Review Board in 2012. Cock was controversially the chief prosecutor during the time of the Andrew Mallard case, found the high court found to have been a miscarriage of justice.

In a relatively small legal pond inevitably there will be elevations of friends and courtiers who circulate close to the throne.

Even so, there’s little doubt that Porter was a star in the boondocks politics of Western Australia and widely tipped to follow Colin Barnett as premier. For a time he concurrently held the portfolios of treasurer and attorney general after the resignation of the chair sniffing Troy Buswell. It was under Porter’s time as exchequer that the state’s fiscal outlook began to deteriorate and shortly after WA lost its AAA rating.

Maybe, he saw the writing on the wall for the Liberals at the forthcoming March 2017 state election and successfully nominated for the federal seat of Pearce, which on current reckoning he’s in danger of losing at the next election.

Not so well know and not much dwelt on these days is that in 1999 Porter was a Cleo Bachelor of the Year finalist where readers were informed that he’s “someone we’d all love to court”. He was asked by the magazine what “mystified” him about women. His reply provided a touching insight: “Why, when you ask a girl ‘What’s wrong?’ and she says ‘Nothing’ and you say ‘OK’, you’re somehow being unreasonable.” It can only be hoped he’s moved on from that state of wounded grievance.

And the attorney general’s 1999 “motto”: “A man without a plan is a man planning to fail.”

Richard Ackland is a Guardian Australia columnist