House debates

Thursday, 23 March 2023


Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading

11:08 am

Photo of Libby CokerLibby Coker (Corangamite, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

The introduction of this bill, the Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022, reflects the Albanese government's solid commitment to restoring trust in federal government and restoring integrity to parliament. It follows a shameful decade under the Liberal government, where harmful and destructive decisions destroyed lives and damaged trust in government. If left to fester, the Liberals' past performance could fundamentally undermine our democracy. But now the grown-ups are back in charge, and we are fixing the Liberals' mess.

In my first address to the House, I spoke of the power of government to help people, to give everyone the ability to strive and succeed. I said, 'I entered politics mostly because of my beautiful daughters, Lily and Isobel,' and I declared that my greatest wish for them would be that they grow up bearing witness to a fair and just future for our country. This bill will enable that.

Specifically, it addresses the former Liberal Prime Minister the member for Cook's secret appointment to administer several ministerial portfolios, in addition to his appointment to administer the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The ministries the former Prime Minister adopted for himself included health; finance; industry, science, energy and resources; Treasury; and home affairs. Of course, there have been some recent revelations of new areas that other ministers were appointed to administer without colleagues being aware of it. It is just astounding this happened without cabinet and the member for Cook's colleagues being aware of it and certainly without the parliament, this House or, most importantly, the Australian people being aware of it. It reflects the seriousness of these actions in undermining our system of government.

The advice of the Solicitor-General, Dr Stephen Donaghue KC, were made public on 22 August last year. It noted that the principles of responsible government were undermined by the actions of the former Prime Minister. This led to the Bell inquiry and, importantly, recommendations contained in this bill to ensure that no such secretive or damaging actions by a prime minister, or any minister, can occur again. We've accepted these recommendations, because the Albanese government knows that high standards in parliament matter—high standards that demonstrate respect for parliamentary conventions like accountability, integrity and transparent decision-making. These conventions underpin our democracy, but under the previous Liberal government rules were broken, transparency in decision-making was ignored and democracy was challenged. It is time to fix the damage done after a decade of Liberal mismanagement.

This bill requires that the Official Secretary to the Governor-General publish a notifiable instrument on the Federal Register of Legislation as soon as reasonably practicable in the following circumstances: when the Governor-General has chosen, summoned and sworn an executive councillor to the Federal Executive Council, appointed an officer to administer a department of state or directed a minister of state to hold an office. Further, the bill will require notification on the revocation of any of these positions to be published. These measures will ensure transparency and accountability in the appointment and revocation of ministerial portfolios by making these changes public knowledge as soon as possible. We need that public knowledge. We want to prevent a repeat of the secret appointments that occurred in the past. Without this transparency. it's impossible for the parliament to hold individuals accountable for their actions. Moreover, this bill reinforces the importance of the trust among ministers and in the Westminster system's conventions. The sad and sorry chapter of Australian history that we witnessed should never be repeated.

This bill represents a rapid response to the findings of the Bell inquiry. By requiring public disclosure of ministerial appointment changes and revocations, this bill will demonstrate a truly transparent parliament and bolster public trust in our democratic system. It has been sorely tested, and we need to ensure that the public have faith in their parliament and in their government. It is crucial that we implement every measure to maintain integrity in our institutions.

It should be noted that even the former Prime Minister's colleagues have questioned the member for Cook's actions and motivations and their capacity to undermine our democratic system. As many of my trusted colleagues have already highlighted, former prime ministers have weighed in on this matter. 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.

Similarly, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott acknowledged the unconventional nature of the situation, saying:

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

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull went even further, describing the situation as 'sinister stuff' and 'one of the most appalling things I've ever heard in our federal government'. Turnbull added:

I mean, the idea that a Prime Minister would be sworn in to other ministries secretly is incredible.

These quotes from former prime ministers demonstrate the gravity of the situation and the impact it has had on our democracy. The actions of the former Prime Minister were extraordinary and concerning, and it's deeply disappointing that we must work to prevent such abuses of power from happening in the future.

This amendment will achieve this, alongside establishment of the powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission as the centrepiece. Additionally, we have followed through on our election promise and established a royal commission into the Liberal government's illegal and callous robodebt scheme, which hounded vulnerable people for debts they did not have. It resulted in unnecessary anguish, anxiety and, in some very tragic circumstances, suicide. Passing this legislation will be a step forward, righting the wrongs of the member for Cook and ensuring that no future prime minister will repeat the actions of the former prime minister. It is a sad day when we must legislate to enforce conventions that should be fundamental to our parliamentarians who are elected to this place.

Respect for our democracy and the Australian people should be the driving force behind our actions. None of us should ever seek to undermine those conventions, nor should we attempt to manipulate the system for our own benefit. The opposition's support of this change is an important acknowledgement of that fact. While I do not take pleasure in revisiting this issue—the disregard shown by the former Prime Minister towards his role and responsibilities—it's crucial that we take steps to ensure accountability and transparency in the future.

Our government is committed to upholding these values and I am proud to support this legislation. This legislation represents an important step towards restoring the public's trust in our democracy and holding those in power accountable. Let us remember that we are here to serve the Australian people, not ourselves or our own ambitions. Let us uphold the conventions and principles of our democracy and let us ensure that no prime minister can ever undermine them again. The Australian people deserve nothing less.


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