House debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023


Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading

12:11 pm

Photo of Sally SitouSally Sitou (Reid, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Before the last election and in the months since I've been out doorknocking all across my electorate. It's a diverse electorate with a range of diverse opinions. We don't agree on everything and I think that's good. I like that people in my area have strong views and beliefs that they are happy to share with me. But one thing that I heard loud and clear before the last election was that politics, politicians and the institutions of government have taken a real hit when it comes to trust. Recent research from the Governance Institute of Australia listed the least trusted occupations in the country. Let's take a guess where we ranked in that list. Three out of the top four spots were taken by politicians. No. 1 for least trusted were state politicians; No. 2 all those in the chamber here, federal politicians; No. 3 real estate agents and No. 4 local politicians. This is not a list you want to do well on.

These results are worrying because the lack of trust has real impacts on how this country runs. That's why I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this bill. It's part of this Labor government's determination to build back trust with the electorate. The bill goes to the heart of what this place does—that is, to the heart of responsible government. Responsible government are two words that in many respects are completely ordinary, but which have a fundamentally important role to play in this place and what we do here.

When the member for Cook went about appointing himself to five additional ministries he rode roughshod over those principles of responsible government, the very essence of what keeps this place ticking. Worse than that, he helped to burn through public trust, one of the most important ingredients to make our democratic institutions work. Let's rewind a bit to August 2022 when the news broke that the member for Cook, while holding the office of Prime Minister, had gone on a power grab unprecedented in this nation's history. I thank Justice Virginia Bell for her examination of the facts here. The member for Cook appointed himself the minister for health on 14 March 2020. A couple of weeks later he also appointed himself Minister for Finance. Twelve months go past and the itch returns and in April of 2021 this time he takes on the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. As we've all learnt, this is where he bundled the member for Hinkler out of the way, so he could make a decision on PEP-11. A month later, the member for Cook took both Home Affairs and Treasury. For those keeping score, that's one man with six portfolios.

One of the most astounding things about this episode was the secrecy with which these arrangements were made. At no stage did the member for Cook make the public or this parliament aware of his additional appointments. In fact, in the cases of his appointments to Health, Finance, Home Affairs and Treasury, the member for Cook didn't even inform the relevant ministers. What are the implications of this? David Crowe, the chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, describes it succinctly: 'There was a blurring of responsibility, an absence of accountability.' One of the central tenets of the Westminster system is that of ministerial accountability. How is the parliament supposed to keep the member for Cook accountable for his actions when it didn't even know about his extra responsibilities? How were Australians supposed to keep him accountable for the extraordinary power he had, when he didn't publicly disclose those powers?

We all come to this place sent by the Australian people to exercise enormous responsibility. I feel that every day. I know the minister for early education, who is at the table, feels that too. We are accountable to the people who elected us to this place. I am accountable to the people of Reid, and I feel that weight of responsibility every day. For ministers, there is an additional layer of responsibility, to the parliament and to the public. It is extraordinary that the member for Cook, in his frenzy for power, never thought his appointment to multiple ministries might pose a problem with accountability.

Even more bizarre, in his response to the Bell inquiry, the member for Cook tried to make a virtue of this secrecy. He stated that because his colleagues didn't know about his appointment, this showed that he restrained from interfering. How generous of him. He still doesn't get it. It wasn't about your colleagues, though they too were understandably furious. It was about this parliament and, more importantly, those people who we are here to represent.

All of this has come from a so-called conservative. It was the member for Cook who, in his first speech, proposed a vision of Australia. I want to quote from his speech here. It was a vision of Australia that was 'strong in its sense of nationhood and in the institutions that protect and preserve our democracy'. How exactly did trashing the basic norms of constitutional government protect and preserve our democracy? I will save you the suspense, Deputy Speaker: it didn't.

And it doesn't stop there. Because, with the exception of just a few—notably, the member for Bass—so many of those sitting opposite backed the member for Cook's actions. We can all remember their response to this House's censure motion. They rose to their feet clapping and gathered around to shake his hand—a bit of solidarity with their old mate, a solidarity at the expense of the country's basic constitutional norms. They had a chance to condemn his actions, and they chose not to. All of them are allegedly conservatives. All of them are allegedly interested in protecting this nation's institutions and democracy. What frauds. We will never be lectured by those opposite on the importance of institutions and the preciousness of democracy in this House—never. With only a few exceptions, those opposite have given up that right. They are, and will continue to be, a party of radicals, not a party of modern conservatives.

And don't be mistaken. This has real practical impacts for everyday life in Australia, because this sort of action is corrosive: corrosive of trust and corrosive of that important relationship between voters and their representatives in this place. When trust fails, as we see increasingly all around the world, it can have an impact on people's lives, because a lack of trust breeds cynicism and, ultimately, degrades the foundations of democracy.

According to Transparency International, over the last decade, Australia has slid down the rankings of the Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2012, Australia scored 85 out of a score of 100. So we were doing quite well. By 2021, that had dropped to 73—a 12-point drop. That is less trust from the public and more cynicism. Even though it's extraordinary this bill needs to be passed by the House, it's worth examining what it does, to ensure such institutional abuses don't happen in the future.

The core of this bill amends the Ministers of State Act 1952 to provide increased transparency into executive government appointments. This will require the publishing of appointments and revocations of ministers from ministerial offices as soon as it is practical—not months later and not after an election cycle. It's a simple change, but one that will mean no future Prime Minister can secretly appoint themselves to multiple ministries without the public being notified.

These changes will have the effect of building on this Labor government's determination to restore trust in this place. It builds on our work to establish a National Anti-Corruption Commission. Because this is a government that knows we need to rebuild trust with the public. That trust is fundamental to making this country work, and that trust should never be taken for granted or diminished. That's why making sure the member for Cook's actions can't be repeated without extensive public scrutiny is so important.

To those opposite, I say: back this bill. It will show that you don't endorse the actions of the former Prime Minister, who trashed our institutional norms. It will show you support our democracy and its institutions. Thank you.


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