House debates

Thursday, 23 March 2023


Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading

11:29 am

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | Hansard source

A familiar feeling flooded over me preparing to speak on this debate. It was that feeling of incredulity that we had so frequently in opposition at the disfunction and the extraordinary situation that the previous Morrison government put this country into, the trashing of long-standing norms of responsible government, of good governance. Turning up to work some days you couldn't believe the kinds of things that were happening in the previous Morrison government. The multiple ministry scandal—even saying it out loud is an extraordinary thing—was probably the nadir of this. You cannot get a better encapsulation of what a megalomaniacal weirdo the member for Cook was as Prime Minister, and the damage and harm that his saviour complex did to the institutions of Westminster government in our country.

The Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022 demonstrates the Albanese government is delivering on its promise to restore the Australian people's confidence in our federal system of government and to rebuild integrity in public sector institutions, processes and officials. The bill will implement reforms to provide for greater transparency and accountability in Commonwealth administration. I saw a tweet this morning from the Manager of Opposition Business complaining this bill was just 'an administrative bill about Ministers' and that it wasn't worth the time of the parliament. It really shows that those opposite have learned nothing from their chaotic time in government and have learned nothing about the costs of their maladministration and chaos to Australia.

This bill is about the most fundamental responsibility of all of us in this chamber—the basic functioning of responsible government. When responsible government is trashed, the quality of government suffers. Our democracy suffers. Our national interest suffers. It is crucial the Albanese government acts to rectify the reckless trashing of these institutions by the previous government. The purpose of this bill is to implement the first of the six recommendations of the Bell inquiry. It follows the steps the government has taken to establish a powerful, transparent and independent national anticorruption commission—the need for which became, unfortunately, obvious under the previous government.

The Prime Minister has spoken about the importance of respecting parliament and its role. I know that he takes the obligations of his office incredibly seriously. That's why the recent censure of the member for Cook for his trashing of Westminster institutions and responsible government was so important. The fact that that censure was necessary was, for me, a profoundly sad moment; it was one of the low points of my time in this chamber, that that was necessary. But ignoring the member for Cook's conduct would have left us all complicit. It would have left us all saying, 'Well, that was alright; we're okay with that.' Instead, this government is committed to addressing the loopholes that allowed this abuse of power by one individual, enabled by those around him, to occur.

The Australian people now have a government that understands the importance of transparency and accountability, and they are entitled to know who is appointed to administer the departments of their state, who comprises their executives and what offices they hold. We thought this was self-obvious. This information should be available to Australians to find out for themselves, not only when a journalist does, not only when a former prime minister takes it upon himself to brag about his trashing of Westminster institutions to journos writing a book about the dysfunction of his previous government.

Our democracy is precious. As we've seen overseas, from the assault on the Capitol building in the US to the recent events in the transition of government in Brazil, no-one around the world can take democracy for granted. All of us in this building hold our democracy in trust for the Australian public. This institution is bigger than all of us. Our conduct in this chamber needs to look to the big picture. We need to put the institution and our democratic traditions ahead of ourselves as individuals, ahead of our narrow paths and political interests. We need to leave these institutions of our democracy in better shape than that in which we received them for those who follow us. Unfortunately, the previous government did damage that will take some time to rectify in terms of public trust.

As details emerged of the member for Cook's actions, this government referred the matter to the Solicitor-General. We acted. The advice of the Solicitor-General, Dr Stephen Donaghue KC, was published on 22 August 2022, and the findings were damning. Between March 2020 and May 2021, the member for Cook was appointed by the Governor-General to administer five departments of state: Health; Finance; Industry, Science, Energy and Resources; Treasury; and Home Affairs. This was not made public and was only revealed when the Prime Minister told on himself to journalists writing a book about him. In the words of the Solicitor-General:

The principles of responsible government are fundamentally undermined by the actions of the former government … It is impossible for the parliament to hold ministers to account for the administration of departments if it does not know which ministers are responsible for which departments.

It's astonishing that we even have to say that in this parliament. The findings of the Solicitor-General made clear the need for an appropriate inquiry into the member for Cook's conduct, and the inquiry into the appointment of the former Prime Minister to administer multiple departments was led by Ms Virginia Bell AC, an outstanding Australian. Ms Bell was eminently qualified for the role, having served as a justice of the High Court for 12 years, following an extensive legal career.

The purpose of the Bell inquiry was to examine, and report on, the facts and circumstances surrounding the member for Cook's appointments and the implications arising from them. Ms Bell invited interested individuals and organisations to make submissions, and many did. Contributions were made by current and former public servants, ministers and ministerial advisers, along with academics and other experts in the field of constitutional law and public administration—people with a stake in the functioning of our parliament and our democracy. At the outset of the inquiry, Ms Bell also wrote to the leaders of the minor political parties represented in the parliament, the Independent parliamentarians, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, inviting them to be heard—all stakeholders in, and trustees of, our democracy.

Ms Bell's report was provided to the government on 25 November 2022. She conducted her inquiry with professionalism and dedication. Her report is comprehensive and even-handed. It is an important contribution to the institutional strength of our democracy. Ms Bell found that the member for Cook's appointments were 'unnecessary', as acting ministers could have been appointed 'in a matter of minutes'. The facile justifications of the member for Cook for these appointments—that somehow he needed to be able to take control and save the nation himself, solely, in the face of the COVID pandemic—didn't bear any scrutiny at all. Indeed, the later three appointments to industry, science, energy and resources, home affairs and Treasury, according to Ms Bell, 'had little connection to the pandemic' and were made because of the member for Cook's concern that 'an incumbent minister might exercise his or her statutory powers in a manner with which the member for Cook didn't agree'. It was about megalomania.

The institutions and conventions of our democracy are designed to stop any individual from taking power in this way. It is important that we all assert that this was not okay. The member for Cook has learned nothing. He didn't agree to meet with Ms Bell and communicated with her only through lawyers. He has no shame. Ms Bell described the member for Cook's explanations as 'not easy to understand'. I didn't understand them, either—particularly his assertion in this chamber in defence of himself in relation to the censure motion that, if we had just asked him, he would have told us the secret ministries that he had been appointed to.

The government has accepted all of Ms Bell's recommendations, with this bill implementing recommendation 1. The bill provides that the Official Secretary to the Governor-General must publish a notifiable instrument, which will be registered on the publicly accessible Federal Register of Legislation as soon as is reasonably practicable, advising that the Governor-General has chosen, summoned and sworn an executive councillor to the federal Executive Council under section 62 of the Constitution; appointed an officer to administer a department of state; or directed a minister of state to hold an office under section 65 of the Constitution. This bill will apply to appointments made by the Governor-General that take place following the commencement of the act.

In the time remaining to me, I want to make a few points. Dysfunction has consequences. The former Prime Minister's trashing of convention isn't just a function of Canberra bubble gossip. I do note the shadow minister for home affairs' personal hurt and chagrin at this conduct and her desire for the member for Cook to leave parliament. I agree with that, but it isn't about personal hurt feelings; it's about the hurt national interests. The member for Cook's megalomania had implications for my own portfolio and for Australia's relationship with the world. Echoing his bragging to journalists about these secret ministries, the member for Cook has recently bragged about the way he sidelined my department—the department for foreign affairs—his foreign affairs minister, Senator Marise Payne, and the then Secretary to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Frances Adamson, from the development of the AUKUS proposal until the very last moment.

We hear from the same journalist, Simon Benson in an article headlined 'Scott Morrison kept AUKUS secret from cabinet ministers and senior diplomats'. Benson says, 'Senior diplomats and cabinet ministers were kept in the dark over AUKUS.' He quotes Mr Morrison:

It was the most remarkably held project that I suspect many could ever recall … This secrecy was so essential because the second it moved outside those who only needed to know, it was a risk.

…   …   …

This wasn't 007 but it was essential to its success …

I hear the interjections from the member for New England. I wonder whether the member for New England can explain why the former member for Cook told Joe Hockey, our ambassador in the US, about AUKUS. He told George Brandis, the high commissioner to the UK, and he told two people who worked for Marise Payne and Frances Adamson about this but not their bosses? Why was it Joe Hockey and George Brandis? Why are they different to Frances Adamson and Marise Payne? What is the common denominator there?


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