One will depart from parliament a deeply disappointed man, dragged down by scandal, with hopes for a brilliant career dashed by an allegation surfacing from his youth.
The other will leave with a solid record of performance, despite some criticism and ambition for higher things unfulfilled.
Christian Porter, 51, on Wednesday announced he will not run again for his Western Australian seat of Pearce. It was a surprise to no one. Health Minister Greg Hunt, 56, is also set to quit at next year’s poll, with his announcement due on Thursday.
Both had previously said they were recontesting their seats.
Porter – subject of a historical rape allegation (that he strongly denies) – had little practical alternative but to quit.
His political career was effectively over. His guilt or innocence could never be proven, because the woman is dead.
His statement on Wednesday contained a note of bitterness. “There are few, if any, constants left in modern politics.” he said. “Perhaps the only certainty now is that there appears no limit to what some will say or allege or do to gain an advantage over a perceived enemy.”
After a high-flying career in state politics, Porter entered federal parliament at the 2013 election, rising to the pinnacle of attorney-general, before the rape allegation began a fall that happened in slow motion.
First he was moved to another portfolio, while remaining in cabinet. Later he was forced to go to the backbench after refusing to disclose secret donors to his legal costs in his defamation action against the ABC.
In terms of his political fortunes, his decision to launch the defamation case was a massive misjudgement, all the stranger given his legal expertise. If he hadn’t done so, he’d likely still be in cabinet, because he would not have needed the money from the secret donors.
Porter was a competent attorney-general, much more qualified than his successor Michaelia Cash. He saw himself as a future prime minister, and many observers and colleagues regarded him as potentially competitive for the leadership.
One wonders, if Porter had remained attorney-general, whether the government would have progressed further on an integrity commission. He prepared the original model, from which the prime minister now won’t budge. If Porter had still been in the job, he might have had the authority to persuade Morrison to accept some necessary changes.
Politically, Porter seemed to have it all, until he had nothing at all, and Liberal tacticians were weighing up whether he would be a liability in his electorate, which is on a 5.2% margin. The seat is a worry for the government but sources believe it will be easier with a fresh candidate.
In contrast Hunt, who might lack the lofty intellect of Porter, will have the legacy of his part (shared with others, including the states) in Australia’s strong health record in managing COVID, despite some negatives on the ledger.
Hunt has been indefatigable in a difficult pandemic world, where advice is necessarily always changing and the outlook often uncertain.
One of his tools of trade, in his public presentations, has been a command of numbers, which gush out in his press conferences and interviews. He’s the positive spinner. Mistakes are not admitted.
On the downside, however, were the missteps in vaccine ordering and the slow rollout that had the government on the back foot for months. Hunt’s health department came under increasing criticism and a military man was appointed roll-out surpremo.
Earlier, the nation had been shocked by the 2020 wave of deaths among aged care residents. Although multiple factors were involved, aged care is a federal responsibility, coming under the health department, and what happened showed the vulnerabilities and lack of preparedness in the sector.
The pandemic catapulted Hunt into the centre of federal government decision-making over the past two years. His prospects had looked very different when, in the leadership turmoil of 2018, he was trounced for the deputy Liberal leadership by his good friend Josh Frydenberg.
That vote demonstrated he would rise no further in the Liberal hierarchy, and if it hadn’t been for COVID he’d have been in the ministerial background.
His decision to leave parliament has been rumoured for some time. His Victorian seat of Flinders is on 5.6% and the Liberals are not particularly worried about it.
Hunt came from a political family – his late father Alan was a Victorian government minister. Elected in 2001, Hunt became a parliamentary secretary in the Howard government.
In opposition, he was spokesman on climate change and environment, which involved some slick footwork when Malcolm Turnbull was replaced by Tony Abbott, given the two leaders’ totally different views on climate policy.
In government, as environment minister Hunt put into place the Coalition’s minimalist climate policy. After a brief time in the industry portfolio he was shifted to health in early 2017.
He’s been very attuned to the retail politics of the portfolio, often announcing drugs added to the pharmaceutical benefits list with a news conference, sometimes accompanied by a beneficiary.
In personal terms, Hunt is a volatile character, liable to blow up at people. His then departmental head, Martin Bowles, formally complained about him after one incident a few years ago. Bowles wasn’t the only senior bureaucrat to find him difficult to deal with.
Hunt, who in his youth had a plan for his life, will move on easily and seamlessly to the next stage, whatever it is. For Porter, who will return to the law, rebuilding will be a hard slog, and the thought of what might have been will never leave him.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra