Thursday, 23 March 2023
Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading
Throughout the world, orderly societies function on acceptance of standards of behaviour, standards of behaviour that often evolve over time—over centuries—taking into account cultural values and general principles of common decency and respect for others. Many of those standards have over time become enshrined in law. Others simply become entrenched in culture and carry on from one era to the next. In Australia's case many of our standards and our values arise from our foundation constitution. We find within that the very values and laws which so much of our society is built on. This very parliament is part of those laws and those values, and this very parliament is guided by House practice, previously modelled on the UK House of Commons practice but, since 1981, from the Australian parliamentary practice. It has been entrenched in practice since Federation in 1901—and probably prior to that in the British parliament, upon which the Westminster system of government is modelled—that all ministerial and parliamentary appointments are immediately notified to parliament. The Westminster system of government and of parliament is frequently held up as a leading model of democratic parliamentary process, embracing transparency and accountability of government. Transparency and accountability are critical to public confidence in parliament and in government.
The very reason this legislation, the Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022, is before parliament is that former prime minister Morrison, the member for Cook, trashed centuries of tradition. In doing so, he trashed that structure of society here in Australia, trashed our Constitution and, quite frankly, trashed our democracy. He did that by failing to publicly disclose that during his last term in office, between March 2020 and May 2021, he had appointed himself to five ministerial portfolios without notifying this parliament, let alone the Australian people. It was only in mid-August 2022 that this information about the former prime minister's five ministerial appointments became public knowledge—that is, 2½ years after the events began and three months after the federal election in May 2022. It was, to my knowledge, the most disrespectful treatment of parliament and the Australian people by a prime minister since Federation.
The irony of it all is that, because of the extraordinary powers held by the Prime Minister under the Westminster system, none of the former prime minister's actions were necessary. By convention, the Prime Minister can at any time override or replace a minister in a matter of minutes. Furthermore, and contrary to former prime minister Morrison's feeble response, there was no emergency which necessitated the unprecedented action which we saw him undertake. If the then Prime Minister believed he was acting in the national interest, why did he not disclose his actions to the Australian parliament, to the Australian people or even to his own party room? Surely, if there was unprecedented action required and it was in the national interest, the argument could have been well made at that time by the former Prime Minister. But he didn't.
That then raises the obvious question: just why did he appoint himself, and find it necessary to appoint himself, to all of those different ministerial portfolios? He appointed himself as Minister for Health, Minister for Finance, Minister for Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, Minister for Home Affairs and Treasurer. Is it because he had lost confidence in his ministers but was too afraid to replace them because they might, in turn, turn on him and he might be voted out of office, or was he obsessed with power? I guess we'll never really know. We can make assumptions about what the reason was. Nevertheless, it really raises the question: why did he act in the way he did when the truth is that he didn't need to? Whatever the reason, the lack of transparency and the underlying dishonesty of not disclosing his actions further eroded trust and confidence in parliament and in politicians more broadly.
The legislation that we have before us now prescribes transparency, prevents a reoccurrence of the member for Cook's actions and re-establishes some trust in the parliament. The truth of the matter is that this legislation should never have been necessary, because parliamentarians—starting from the very highest office in this land, that of the Prime Minister—should have acted with honesty and integrity. Had that happened, not only would the Australian people have continued to have at least some level of confidence and trust in this parliament but we would not today be having to try to legislate for that trust rather than have it because people acted in accordance with the expectations of them.
Indeed, real trust and confidence are best assured when those in positions of authority voluntarily act honourably and with integrity. That's when you get real trust and confidence throughout the land. That wasn't the case in the last government, and perhaps it was a reflection of a failed government that for its whole term in office was riddled with acts which caused a loss of confidence in this parliament among the Australian people. This was a government that failed to enact a national anticorruption commission. In hindsight, it's quite clear that the Morrison government didn't want a national anticorruption commission because that commission would then very likely have had the power to investigate actions of the very government that established the national anticorruption commission, and that was the last thing they wanted. They could not bring in a national anticorruption commission that was not independent of government, and, once it was not independent of government, the former Prime Minister saw some problems with that body.
This was the government that pursued the illegal robodebt scheme which we're hearing so much about right now—again a matter that the Morrison government did not want exposed and inquired into. As we're seeing right now, we understand why and we understand how detrimental to the lives of so many people that illegal action was. This was a government that stacked the Australian Administrative Appeals Tribunal with 85 politically aligned appointments—appointments made simply to carry out the agenda of the government of the day and not make the impartial decisions that one would expect of that body. This was a government that rorted grant funds in a way that I have not seen before. There are many, many examples of that that people can talk about and analyse. The reality is that this was a government that did that each and every time funds were made available for a particular program. This was a government that paid $30 million for land valued, at best, at $3 million. Yet they've never explained why and how they came to that value. I hope there are going to be more explanations about all of that. This was a government that refused to disclose the $1 million of funding to the former Attorney-General and that also cut funding to the only other office we had in the land that might have been able to inquire into government operations, and that was the Auditor General 's office. I could go on about all of those matters that the Morrison government oversaw in its time in office.
The truth of the matter is that the Morrison government was a government in office at a time when there were many matters before this parliament that the Australian people were asking questions about. The last thing that the government wanted was to be held accountable. So it turned out that, rather than the Prime Minister of the day setting up the bodies and ensuring transparency, he did the exact opposite.
I just want to finish my comments with this perspective. As I said from the outset, we live in a structured society. We live in a country that is considered one of the most democratic in the world. Consider this. Had the Prime Minister, instead of taking on the responsibilities of five ministers, taken on the responsibility of each and every minister in the cabinet—which he could have done in exactly the same way that he took on the responsibility of those five—there was nothing stopping him from going all the way and replacing every single cabinet minister with himself. What sort of country would we have had then? Yet the system allowed him to do so and he took advantage of it for his own personal reasons. That is the seriousness of what he actually did. It would have effectively made him a dictator. It wasn't just five portfolios. That simply highlights what could have been possible under that scenario.
I say to members opposite that this legislation is before the House because we don't want to see a repeat of that. It's before the House to try and restore the confidence that the Australian people, I believe, have for almost a century had in the parliament. It's before the House because we want this parliament to operate with transparency and integrity. Quite frankly, it had done so for nearly a century, and all of those traditions and all of that confidence were lost because of the action of one single person, the former member for Cook, the Prime Minister at the time. I commend this legislation to the House.