House debates

Monday, 20 March 2023


Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading

12:22 pm

Photo of Patrick GormanPatrick Gorman (Perth, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister) Share this | Hansard source

If you use ChatGPT in secret, you get kicked out of university. If you pass on team secrets to a bookie, you get kicked out of the team and sometimes kicked out of the sport. If you keep secrets from a royal commission, you get an adverse finding. But, if you secretly swear yourself into five portfolios, the parliamentary Liberal Party and National Party will rush to your defence in a partisan vote on censure.

Every Australian should know that those opposite thought that the activities of the member for Cook were just fine. They stood up and defended his right to swear himself into secret ministries. They questioned it in the media—there were lots of questions in the media—but then, when it came to actually doing their job, how did they vote? The Liberal Party and the National Party made a decision in their party room to vote to protect the member for Cook. What they really did, though, was tell their constituents just how far the standards of the Liberal Party and the National Party have slipped over time. They told those in the gallery and the students who visit this place all of the time that this was okay and somehow was consistent with the parliamentary traditions which they seek to uphold—or, in this case, undermine.

Contrast that with the history of this place, because this is a debate about tradition and about how we uphold standards that have existed long before us and should exist for many, many decades afterwards. If you look to World War II, we had John Curtin holding special private sittings to share secrets with members, trusting every member, from all sides of the parliament. If you contrast the former member for Fremantle with the current member for Cook, you have one who saved us from invasion and one who separated us from information. It wasn't just that he didn't trust the parliament; he didn't trust his own colleagues. The fact that there were so few who were outraged—and I give credit to a number who did express their outrage at the time—shows just how far the standards have slipped in the Liberal Party and the National Party. I say that because, in the darkest days of the COVID pandemic, we had the member for Cook looking for what he could sign and what he could lock away in his safe so that he could 'fundamentally undermine' his own cabinet colleagues.

I didn't like the result of the 2019 election, but I respected it. I respected the decision that the Australian people made, but, clearly, the member for Cook did not. As Prime Minister, he set out, within months of that election, to dismantle centuries and centuries of Westminster tradition. No-one voted for secret ministries and no-one voted for absolute secret power with the Prime Minister. No-one thought that their local Liberal or National would allow this to happen, but they did. Every coalition member failed in their duty. They allowed a silent and secret insurgency here in Australia, and, while the ministries were kept secret, it is no secret that they were too gutless to condemn this behaviour. When it comes to the role of different people in this place, it is the job of those of us in this House to hold ministers to account. We were denied the opportunity to do that job. It is the job of journalists in the gallery to expose secrets. That's what they come here to do, and we give them an entire level of the building to do so. While we might not like it at times, our democracy is all the stronger for it.

I give credit to the member for Cook for one thing. I give credit to him for sharing this secret with Simon Benson, but shouldn't he have told the parliament too? Shouldn't he have at least told the then health minister, the home affairs minister or even his Lodge-mate, the Treasurer? When he did tell one person, the member for Riverina, they should have refused to keep his dirty secrets. But we got one of the most pathetic excuses I have ever heard in my time in Australian politics. The former Prime Minister, the member for Cook, in explaining why he told nobody, said, 'No-one asked me,' as if the only time that the Australian people deserve a full and accurate answer from those in positions of power is a response to millimetre accurate questions from the media.

At the same time that all of the secret ministries business was being shuffled in papers in the Prime Minister's office by the member for Cook, the member for Cook was quoting The Croods and telling Western Australians to 'get out of the cave'. It turns out that not only was he the secret minister for health at the time he was giving this lecture to Western Australians but he was also hiding in a cave himself. That is why this legislation is necessary. It's necessary because, based on the votes in this House in the 47th Parliament, we know that if we don't put this legislation through, this is how those opposite will want to behave again.

I do want to give credit, though, to the member for McPherson for calling out just how ridiculous this was. She said, 'This undermines the integrity of government.' In reference to the member for Cook, she said, 'It is time for him to leave the parliament and look elsewhere for employment.' This may be advice that is still being considered. But it is amazing that, when you go and look for what you would think would be a few quotes from a few people who really stood up, you don't find that much. The silence tells you more than what has been said by the opposition spokespeople on this particular bill.

For Australians, this just goes so much against what they experience in their working life. I remember when I was 19 years old and working on both sides of the aisle, as they would say—I was working for McDonald's and Domino's Pizza, doing two jobs over the summer—I didn't hide it from anyone. The Australian Taxation Office knew. I disclosed it. It's important to be honest about these things, and that's what most Australians expect. That's what most Australians do when they have to interact with government.

I note what was said by the member for Newcastle about the fact that we had the former government pursuing people for perceived secrets they had supposedly kept from Centrelink through the robodebt scandal—secrets that didn't even exist. They were happy to prosecute that while, at the same time, keeping secrets about how they were running the ministries of this nation.

What gets very interesting is that this was a cultural problem in the Liberal and National parties. It was a cultural problem that was embodied by the former Prime Minister but wasn't exclusive to him. We learnt more last week about the other secret ministries. These are just the latest. They may be more. You never know when it comes to the bizarre breaching of conventions and traditions that has become a hallmark of the Liberal and National parties. We discovered last week that it wasn't just the member for Cook who was secretly appointed to ministries. Documents released under freedom of information revealed an insidious approach in the previous coalition government when it came to appointing ministers. We saw two assistant ministers secretly appointed to other portfolios, with no swearing-in ceremony, no public event, no changes to the public ministry lists and no advice to this chamber—just a breakdown in the trust on which democracy is based.

Again I pay credit to the member for McPherson, who again was one of the only ones who had the integrity to speak out on this. The former Minister for Home Affairs said, 'Given what we've heard, it's not surprising I wasn't told about it,' because one of those secret assistant ministries was within her own portfolio. She said:

It's not OK to behave in the way the former prime minister and others have in relation to keeping information secret.

What we're learning is that more and more on the opposition benches knew about these secrets but none of them ever had the guts to say it and tell the parliament how the government was actually being run.

I would be interested to know if the now opposition leader knew about these secret appointments. He has been very quiet on these matters: 'Oh, look, you know, he probably won't do it again.' But there is no proper explanation from him about a government of which he was a senior minister. Indeed, he held many of the portfolios that would eventually be touched by the secret ministries scandal.

What we know is that, when the now opposition leader was the Minister for Home Affairs, on 11 March 2021 wheels were being put in motion to give him a secret assistant minister—to put in place a secret assistant minister in the Home Affairs portfolio. There was a request from the office of the then Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, for the Hon. Ben Morton MP to administer the Department of Home Affairs. That was communicated on 11 March 2021. The now opposition leader was the minister at the time. If he knew, he should tell this parliament that he knew, and, if he didn't know, he should be as outraged as everyone else about these secret ministries. This parliament deserves an explanation from the now opposition leader about what he knew and what else he might know about the secret ministries and the secret assistant ministries that lived a large life in the secret administration of the Morrison government.

We did see the opposition leader defend these actions. He thought it was basically wrong but excusable, which to me really just spells out a weak culture of leadership and governance and proves to the Australian people why the now opposition leader should never be put in a place where he holds executive power ever again. It basically tells the Australian people that outside the Leader of the Opposition's office hangs a big sign that says, 'Integrity optional.' In other words, the buck does not stop here when it comes to those opposite.

I do give them credit, though. When they are forced to come into this place and vote on things, they will vote in favour of a protection racket for secret ministries, they will vote in favour of higher energy prices, they will vote in favour of stopping action on climate change and they will vote in favour of more debt by refusing to act on unsustainable measures in our superannuation system. But the only time the Australian people actually needed a 'no-alition' was when they started to find out about the secret ministries scandal, when one of them—just one of them—could have said no. They could have said to the Prime Minister at the time, the Hon. Scott Morrison, member for Cook, 'Mate, this is just not the way to run a government,' because it's not the way that government has ever been run in the past. It was without precedent.

What we've seen in the language from the now former Prime Minister is that he did go 'through a phase'. It was a trend at the time to claim 'fake news' from time to time, but in this action he did more than most in this place to undermine faith in our democracy. While he ran around saying 'fake news', he was secretly creating real news, real swearings-in to real positions, and creating a new secret service in Her Majesty's government of the Commonwealth of Australia.

I am going to end with a story which I feel will have a good lesson for the member for Cook. He should read up on George Lazenby. Lazenby was born just down the road, in Goulburn. He spent his teenage years in Queanbeyan. As the Minister for Defence Personnel would say, many should follow his lead in his service in the Australian Army. But it wasn't service in the Army that turned out to be his true passion; it was acting, and he got his big acting break in 1968, the same year that the member for Cook was born. That big break made him, to this day, the only Australian to play James Bond. He played James Bond in a movie that many of us love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Yes, the title gives it away. Bond is secretly doing a mission without authorisation from MI6. Moneypenny secretly alters Bond's resignation paperwork without telling anyone. The head of SPECTRE is using brainwashed agents. Not telling anyone, secret paperwork, brainwashed ministers—sound familiar? But here's where Australia's James Bond, George Lazenby, got it right: he only played James Bond once. He only had one job, and he focused on doing that one job well.

I'm proud to be part of a government that is bringing integrity back to this matter; I'm proud that, when we found out about this outrageous breach of Westminster convention, it was referred for a proper, thorough inquiry; and I'm proud that we have acted by bringing this legislation, which I urge every member—whatever your political stripes—to vote for.


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