Monday, 20 March 2023
Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022. Let's be clear: this is a bill that should never have been brought to this place. The contents of the bill are matters that every single member in this place, especially those in leadership positions, should have respected in the first place. The former Liberal Prime Minister turns out to be a man with many hats, a so-called jack of all trades but, as the Australian people know all too well, the master of none.
It was Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers' book Plagued that first revealed the former Prime Minister's secret ministries. From their interviews, we discovered that between March 2020 and May 2021 the former Prime Minister, the member for Cook, still sitting in this chamber, was appointed by the Governor-General to administer not one, not two, not three but five additional secret portfolios. As the member for McPherson, the former Minister for Home Affairs, which was one of the departments the former Prime Minister appointed himself in charge of, said:
This is totally unacceptable, for a prime minister to behave in this manner undermines everything that a federal government constitutionally should stand for.
I couldn't agree more.
To add insult to injury, just last week it was revealed in documents published under freedom of information laws that the former Prime Minister appointed his former assistant minister Ben Morton, no longer in this place, to administer the home affairs department in March 2021—a move not publicly disclosed at the time in the official ministry list or in a swearing-in ceremony. The secret promotion for Ben Morton was made two months before Morrison's controversial decision to appoint himself, and happened on the exact same day that former home affairs minister Karen Andrews was appointed to the ministry. Former minister Andrews blasted the member for Cook after discovering these new deceits by the former prime minister, and she said:
Given what we've heard, it's not surprising that I wasn't told about it.
It's not okay to behave in the way the former prime minister and others have in relation to keeping information secret.
'It's extraordinary,' she said. Well, that is the understatement of the year. Who knows what the reasoning was behind any of that.
It has also emerged that the member for Capricornia, a Nationals MP, was appointed to administer the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet at the same time and in the same manner as Ben Morton, in moves that were gazetted but not widely known—let's be honest—at that time. It begs the question: what more are we to find out? The secret, scheming grab for power beggars belief. It flies in the face of what a democratic government should stand for, and that is transparency, accountability and integrity, amongst other matters. The former prime minister's senior ministers were totally blindsided.
I have every reason to believe the member for McPherson was genuinely devastated to hear the news of what had gone on behind her back. But so, too, were the Australian public. Following the expose of the former prime minister's secret ministries in mid-August last year, did the former prime minister apologise to the Australian people or his colleagues? No. He spent much of that night sitting at home, creating memes or commenting on Facebook jokes about his five secret ministry positions. It was all a big joke to him. Personally, I think that this undermining of our parliamentary system of government—of the whole Westminster system—and of our democratic traditions of accountability is no laughing matter. If the member for Cook thinks his behaviour is so funny, I suggest he resigns from this parliament immediately. Perhaps he should try his hand at being a comedian, but this parliament is not a sitcom. We're not here to play out that kind of despicable behaviour.
The people of Newcastle feel especially aggrieved by the former prime minister's decision to appoint himself on 15 April 2021 as the Minister for Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. We understand that the member for Cook did so because the then minister for resources, the current minister for Hinkler, apparently had no intention of rejecting the PEP-11 licence off the coast of New South Wales. Now, the PEP-11 issue—for those who don't understand acronyms, the petroleum exploration permit—has reared its ugly head again in my community as a direct result of the former prime minister's utter disregard for proper governance. What this shows is that the former prime minister understood from the get-go that he could take on specific extra portfolios and make determinations. He understood that by taking on those portfolios he could use his power and responsibilities against the wishes of his current ministers, who had been sworn in under those very portfolios. In doing so, he jeopardised due process and the entire functions of our system of government.
His disregard for our democracy has been very costly for the Commonwealth, which has to fight battles in the Federal Court, and for the people in Australia and for my community of Newcastle, in particular, because it means now that the application for PEP-11 must be brought back for a decision by the joint Commonwealth-New South Wales authority. I share my community's frustration and anger that this issue was so grossly mishandled by the former prime minister. I can assure the people of Newcastle that there is only one Minister for Resources in this Albanese Labor Government, and she will be diligent in doing her job properly. That's what a responsible government does. I say unequivocally to my community that due process will be followed to deal with this matter once and for all.
While the public hearings for the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme have now ceased, our nation remains aghast. Day after day, the robodebt royal commission outlined processes and practices of the former government that were both unethical and illegal. Let me repeat that—illegal. These were matters that brought untold suffering for hundreds of thousands of Australian people. The royal commission laid bare the former government's total disregard for its duty to the wellbeing of its citizens in using a flawed and dangerous mathematical algorithm to go after some of the most vulnerable in our community. A total of 764,000 Australians who had received welfare payments in the past were unlawfully accused of defrauding the government and slapped with robodebt notices. Of them, 348,000 Australians were subsequently notified there was an apparent discrepancy during the scheme and did not have the debt raised against them. However, the remaining 416,000 Australians were still issued unlawful robodebts after July 2017. That's hundreds of thousands of Australians, including many Novocastrians in my electorate of Newcastle, who had unlawful debts raised against them by the most powerful entity in Australia, the Commonwealth.
It went on for 4½ years. Let that sink in. Illegal practices with devastating consequences under the watch of the former government went on for 4½ years. If that government had heeded the repeated, numerous and now well documented warnings and stopped the robodebt scheme in its tracks, as it should have, 764,000 of our fellow Australians would not have been subjected to this stressful and unlawful behaviour by their own government. Not only did the Morrison government continue this illegal scheme for more than three years, until it was eventually stopped by a class action that started in November 2021; we know from evidence at the recent hearings of the royal commission that they were continuously dismissive of all those warnings I just spoke about.
We heard from the former cabinet minister and now member for Fadden, who sits in this parliament, on those benches opposite. The member for Fadden admitted that he made false statements in support of robodebt because—and this is going to floor most Australians—he wasn't permitted to tell the truth due to cabinet protocols. Rather than exercising ministerial agency and pushing back against an unlawful program, the then minister and now member for Fadden noted:
… you generally don't have the luxury of saying no.
Doesn't that give us every indication of the type of government that the member for Cook was running? What a terrifying state of affairs. The legacy of the Morrison government is in tatters. When you hear former ministers were more committed to shaking down vulnerable Australian citizens for unlawful debts than they were to standing up for them in their own cabinet room, it's no wonder the Australian people voted for change last May.
The Albanese Labor government has been fast to act on restoring integrity to the political system. Of course, we had the Bell inquiry. Following revelations of the former Prime Minister's secret ministries, the now Prime Minister and the Attorney-General announced the establishment of an inquiry into the appointment of the former Prime Minister to administer multiple departments, led by a former High Court justice, the Hon. Virginia Bell AC. Part of the recommendations of this review was to amend the Ministers of State Act to provide for greater transparency and accountability for Australia's system of government at the Commonwealth level.
It's extraordinary that this new government had to call an inquiry and have a former High Court justice provide a recommendation to this parliament that we should ensure that all of the business we transact here or in the name of the Commonwealth should be aboveboard, lawful and filled with integrity and that we should be accountable to the Australian people. I would have thought that was a given. I think most members in this House would have thought that was a given. But these amendments are clearly necessary given what we now know about the former administration. These amendments that the Labor government is introducing are essential to restoring trust in government. They ensure that the Australian people are able to access information in relation to the composition of the Federal Executive Council, those who have been appointed to administer certain departments of state, and the high offices that ministers of state hold.
When the Albanese Labor government was elected, we knew we had a big job in front of us to restore the public's trust in government following almost a decade of mismanagement and rorts. Little did we know the extent of the chaos and dysfunction amongst the coalition ranks. Introducing this bill demonstrates this government's readiness to act promptly to restore the Australian people's confidence in our federal system of government and to rebuild integrity in the public sector, our institutions, our processes and our officials. It ensures that we have a system of government where there are checks and balances and where one person cannot again garner power without adequate and warranted accountability to the Australian people and the Australian parliament. This, I say, is the very least we can do. It is in the interests of all of us to restore public trust and confidence in our political institutions. The Australian people deserve nothing less than the very best from each and every one of us in this Australian parliament.