Thursday, 9 March 2023
Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading
Tania Lawrence (Hasluck, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source
The attitude of every member of parliament towards the democratic institutions and conventions that we work within matters. Every member here receives messages every day from constituents and others telling us about the threats to democracy and freedom from all corners of the world. Democracy begins at home. We all need to work together, every day, to maintain our democratic system. Within that system our Prime Minister is sometimes referred to as 'the first among equals'. The former Prime Minister, the member for Cook, was not content to be first among equals. He quietly became first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth among equals.
This simple legislation, the Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022, is designed to help ensure that this does not happen again—at least not quietly. Let's imagine for a moment what would have happened if every time the member for Cook had been appointed to another ministry, instead of doing it on the sly, he had actually let the Australian people and his cabinet colleagues know about it. There would have been disquiet, incredulity perhaps, disagreement, lively question times in this place, almost certainly a Senate inquiry and the odd resignation of an affronted minister. Perhaps more people would have voted against the Liberals last May. We don't know. We don't know because this didn't happen.
The real problem here is the secrecy. Members opposite have not yet managed to come to this, but they do need to, because our system of government requires transparency, disclosures, checks and balances. Even here in this place, every movement a backbencher makes is broadcast in advance, to the point where we are never really surprised about who is speaking when and even for how long.
Without transparency, democracy is at risk. The website freedomhouse.org states that 'democracy's resilience is inherently connected to the health of its institutions.' When a nation turns away from democracy it doesn't happen all at once. Rather, it is white-anted through attacks on one democratic institution at a time. In some countries the executive starts to attack the judiciary or to stack it with their cronies. In others, elections are postponed, promised, and delayed again and again. Gerrymanders and other unfair electoral laws eat away at confidence. In some places journalists are too fearful to criticise their government. Some governments carry out surveillance of their citizens without the safeguards we have here, and in some places the parliament starts to be ignored by the executive, just here and there at first with little things and then with greater matters. In these places, citizens can end up losing so much of their faith and confidence in their government that they end up having no respect or regard for it at all. Which trajectory did the member for Cook want us to be on?
We have an array of checks and balances in our system. They are there for a reason, and members of parliament are their first line of defence. This legislation is here because one person, inhabiting a position where everyone would have simply assumed a certain degree of commitment to democratic norms and conventions, was shown to be somewhat less committed to those norms and conventions than he needed to be. The member for Cook is still here. I don't mean he is present, but he is still the member for Cook. No-one knows why. The good people of Cook do not have a real representative here anymore.
In relation to his strange, irresponsible and undemocratic behaviour, the member for Cook stated variously that they were difficult times, that he had himself given secret powers 'just in case' and that they were never used. And then he said he used one, but that was different, and it was in the national interest anyway. It's the sort of intellectual and moral gymnastics that we have become used to from that member. It would have been more just if Australians had been able to pass judgment on this behaviour at the election last May. They couldn't, because he hadn't told them.
I do not want to merely address the failings of the member for Cook. There are more numerous failings to address in this matter. Last year, members opposite had the chance to censure the member for Cook for this behaviour. They failed to do that. The standard we walk past is the standard we accept. I must admit, I was a little stunned at the readiness with which coalition members forgave the member for Cook and failed to censure him for what was a flagrant behaviour at odds with our democracy.
This failure seemed to come down to one of three factors. Firstly, some members opposite may simply not understand how fundamental the need for transparency, for honesty, is in these circumstances. They need to go back to political school on that one. One of the workshops of the McKinnon Institute course that I and other new members completed last year challenged us to determine how we discharge our obligations and responsibilities in ways that preserve and guard against the erosion of fundamental values. I recommend, to all members present, the excellent professional development series offered by the McKinnon Institute.
Secondly, I'm sure some members gave it no thought at all. They simply followed the party line. They thought that party loyalty came before their duty to their electors and to the parliament. Party loyalty is a good and useful thing. On this side of the House, solidarity has been a large part of the ALP's success for over 120 years. Does it come before your duty to the Australian people? No, it doesn't.
Thirdly, there is the factor of friendship. Some members simply like the member for Cook. He is their mate, and they don't want to censure their mate. I am a new member but I've got some news for members: we don't come into this place to make friends. We may well make friends—and hopefully we will make friends on all sides—but we have a duty here to the 150,000 souls we each represent. We have a duty to the Australian people to do the right thing. We have to separate our personal attachments to each other from our work, both in considering each piece of legislation and with regard to each unparliamentary behaviour that needs to be brought to account. If that means you upset your friend, then you upset your friend. If that means you have to censure your friend, then you censure your friend.
I can quote usefully here from a friend of mine, one of my former bosses, once Premier of Western Australia, Mr Geoff Gallop. In his essay published in the Australasian Parliamentary Review in 2009, entitled The role of a member of parliament, Mr Gallop states:
In fulfilling all of these functions and responsibilities there is a legal, indeed a constitutional principle involved—the public interest.
… … …
It is up to the Member to make sense of all of this in a way that is efficient, effective and ethical.
… they should do all of this in the knowledge not only that the electorate is the ultimate authority but also with a full understanding of what is right and what is wrong in the way they go about their activities. These are important checks and balances which we ignore at our peril.
Before he entered politics in the 1980s, Mr Gallop was an educator, and he teaches still.
As members of parliament, we need to understand our duties. I'm still very much a student of this. It beggars belief, though, that members opposite were unable to bring themselves to censure the member for Cook. There is no real excuse. They had the Solicitor-General's advice that 'the principles of responsible government are fundamentally undermined' by the actions of the former government. They had the report the former High Court justice Bell, who noted that the lack of disclosure was 'apt to undermine public confidence in government'. They had opinions from respected academics such as Patrick Weller, emeritus professor of politics at Griffith University, who described the undermining of ministerial responsibility, and constitutional law professor Anne Twomey, who said:
He was like a ghost minister no one could see. It is conduct that is contrary to the level of transparency one would expect from a government.
They also had the benefit of no end of press, summed up well by reporter Katharine Murphy's conclusion:
… he disdained parliamentary and democratic conventions that are fundamentally important—conventions that exist to prevent abuses of power.
If only there were some authoritative source on such matters that members could refer to! The House of Representatives Practice: 7th Edition, page 34, says:
… the House of Representatives is the people's House and the inheritance of responsible government, through the Cabinet system, is the most significant characteristic attaching to it.
Members opposite—apart from the member for Bass, who is a credit to her party—ignored all of that. Some members also even managed to ignore themselves. The member for McPherson, upon learning that she'd been merely the co-pilot as Minister for Home Affairs, said:
I had absolutely no knowledge and was not told … This undermines the integrity of government.
She was quite right. Did she then vote to censure the member for Cook? No, she did not. The member for McPherson stuck her head up out of the trench for a moment, saw how lonely it was up there and got down in the trench again.
There were a few other interesting comments from the opposition early on. Senator Birmingham described the issue as 'curious, troubling and worthy of some explanation', while the now Leader of Opposition, the member for Dickson, had to admit he was unaware as to whether he also may have been merely a co-pilot as Minister for Defence.
As Minister Burke noted in his speech on the censure motion, many more gave their reaction off the record, but the Hansard is the record. Members opposite are recorded there failing to censure the member for Cook. Well, they had their chance, they made their call and they got it wrong. It's a failure and it's a failure in their duties to this place, to their constituents and to their country at large. The member for Dickson failed to censure the former Prime Minister, the member for Cook, for misleading the parliament. The member for McPherson failed to censure the former Prime Minister, the member for Cook, for misleading the parliament. The member for Maranoa failed to censure the former Prime Minister, the member for Cook, for misleading the parliament. There were other members who failed, but they can breathe a little easy as I haven't the time now to name each and every one.
But let's look at the bill itself. This bill will make law the recommendations of the Bell inquiry. It merely requires public notice to be given in various ways about who is minister for what and for when. It's a simple bill for an act that seems to do very little. Someone wandering in from the street might look at it and say, 'Why do you even need a law to do that?' Well, for 120 years we didn't. For 120 years we had managed to get by with prime ministers who had enough knowledge of and respect for the institutions and conventions of government in this country that we didn't need such a law. Now, unfortunately, we do need it. I support the bill. For 120 years we have managed to get by with prime ministers who had enough knowledge of and respect for the institutions and conventions of government in this country, and we didn't need such a law. Now, unfortunately, we do need it. I support the bill.