House debates

Monday, 20 March 2023


Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading

12:46 pm

Photo of Cassandra FernandoCassandra Fernando (Holt, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak in favour of the Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022. The passage of this bill is essential to preserve our Westminster style of democracy and prevent actions like those of the former Prime Minister, the member for Cook from ever taking place again.

In May of last year, Australians across the country and in my electorate of Holt spoke loudly at the ballot box, and they backed in the only party with a proper plan to bring integrity back to our political system. This Labor government has kept to that plan by acting urgently as a matter of priority on moving to establish an independent anti-corruption commission. In layman's terms this bill ensures that the actions taken by the former Liberal Prime Minister can never happen again. Going forward, this bill will significantly increase the accountability and transparency of government by providing everyday Australians with the information to know who is responsible for what ministry, who is appointed to the federal Executive Council and who administers the departments of state.

You may be wondering why this legislation is necessary now. After all we have enjoyed 122 years of successful Commonwealth governments without it. It is only because of the actions of the former Prime Minister, the member for Cook, and his five secret ministries that this legislation became necessary in order to protect our democracy for the next 122 years. This bill also forms part of this Labor government's formal response to the Bell inquiry which was led by former High Court Justice, the Hon. Virginia Bell AC, with the final report being handed to the government on 25 November 2022. We have wasted no time since then in formulating this legislation to address these important sections of the Bell report to safeguard Australian democracy.

Even now, I sometimes struggle to wrap my head around the actions of the former Prime Minister. When the news broke in August of the member for Cook's secret power grab of five of his own government's ministries between March 2020 and May 2021, I was truly shocked. To remind the House, those were the departments of health, finance, industry, Treasury and home affairs. It is not often that a politician is lost for words, but I certainly was. Thankfully, the Solicitor-General, Stephen Donaghue KC, wasn't. In the wake of these revelations, he said the principles of responsible government were 'fundamentally undermined' by the actions of the former government.

To assure the public that the government took this seriously, we ensured the inquiry was nonpartisan by appointing someone independent like Ms Bell from the very beginning. The review heard from both current and former public servants, advisers, former ministers and experts in the field of constitutional law and public administration. For members of the opposition to label the Bell inquiry as anything less than extensive and nonpartisan is dishonest. In fact, three former Liberal prime ministers expressed their shock at the secret ministries revelation; it doesn't get more bipartisan than that. Former Prime Minister John Howard said:

I don't think he should have done that, I don't think there was any need to do it, and I wouldn't have.

The next Liberal Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, said:

I'm just not going to defend what was done … it is just highly unconventional, highly unorthodox and shouldn't have happened.

For me, I think former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull put it best when he said:

This is a sinister stuff. This is secret government. This is one of the most appalling things I have ever heard in our federal government. I mean, the idea that a Prime Minister would be sworn in to other ministries secretly is incredible.

The opposition's position on this bill has been meek and murky before finally saying it'll vote for it, as though it's being dragged to do the right thing by the public.

Even with the strong condemnation from former Liberal prime ministers Howard, Abbott and Turnbull, it was still not enough for the modern Liberal Party to do the right thing and vote for the government's censure motion of the member for Cook. Instead, the member for Bass was the only Liberal with any integrity and who voted with the government. I have a lot of respect for the member for Bass for that vote, but I must say: how she or any other Liberal with a shred of self-respect can be led by someone like the current Leader of the Opposition, who lacks basic respect for the Australian people, is beyond me. How the member for Dickson can justify to the Australian people that the former Prime Minister did nothing wrong is truly shameful. All members opposite know what he did was wrong, yet only one had the integrity to put their money where their mouth is.

I have spoken many times about the diversity present in my electorate of Holt. The ethnic, religious and geographical diversity makes it rather unique, and you're bound to speak to people with different views and priorities. However, one of the many things that unite us is the ideal of Australian democracy and that its representatives must do all they can to protect its purity. There is not one person I have spoken to in my community who is happy that their Prime Minister at the time lied to them, day in and out, for over one year. It was bad enough he told us he didn't hold a hose, didn't control when vaccines arrived in Australia and didn't control COVID safety measures; he did not rock up when people needed him to—unless it was to force someone to shake his hand, of course. This betrayal of people's trust, on top of everything else, was truly the last straw.

My constituents are extremely pleased to now have a government that is honest and is led by an honest man. Prime Minister Albanese stands in stark contrast to the member for Cook. His previous experience as the Leader of the House, as a minister and as a former deputy prime minister has put him in good stead as our Prime Minister now. Throughout Prime Minister Albanese's tenure, he has always approached the job with an honesty that is sadly becoming rarer in politics. His honesty in wanting to do the right thing is self-evident in the legislation we are debating today.

The introduction of this bill shows that this government is delivering on its promise to restore trust and integrity to federal politics, which is exactly what Australians across the country have trusted us to do. I strongly believe that the measures in this bill will go quite some way to providing superior integrity and transparency around the process of appointing elected officials to high office, and to ensuring that we have a system of government with strong checks and balances rather than relying on centuries-old conventions. The changes proposed in this bill are one of many steps to ensure our political conventions can't be twisted or manipulated to the political advantage of one person ever again.

I commend this bill to the House and encourage all members who have basic respect for the Australian people to support it too.

Debate adjourned.


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