Thursday, 23 March 2023
Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading
I'm going to use a couple of words that we haven't seen for a while, and they are 'transparency' and 'accountability'. They're words that mean a lot inside this building, but out in the rest of Australia people often don't know what 'transparency' and 'accountability' are when it comes to the Westminster system of democracy. But they are essential terms, in the same way that, in the military—as I see the member for Solomon leaving—words like 'honour' and 'loyalty' might be essential. They're words that people live their lives by. Similarly, when it comes to good government, words like 'transparency' and 'accountability' must inform all that you do in government. Government is a messy business. It is not perfect. As they say, democracy is the worst system of government, but it's better than all the rest. Democracy only works when there is transparency and accountability. Sadly, those two words, 'transparency' and 'accountability', are not words we can associate with the former Morrison government. How many times did they, through their actions, fail to be accountable and transparent? Because of my love of poetry, I might quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning: 'Let me count the ways.'
Remember the member for Hume hiding the rises in electricity prices till after the election? Remember the colour-coded spreadsheets of sports rorts? Remember the park-and-rides for train stations that didn't actually exist? That was a Victorian special, I think—more pork than a piggery. Unbelievable. Remember robodebt? How shocking has the testimony at the royal commission been—400,000 Australians, some of them our most vulnerable Australians, robbed by a government. Remember the coalition government failing to order enough PPE at the start of the pandemic, then ordering PPE from overseas instead of backing in our local manufacturing businesses? Remember them not ordering enough vaccines? Remember them picking fights with premiers instead of working together through one of Australia's most difficult hours, through the pandemic? Remember the French submarine fiasco, where we built a big shed for the French? Remember the PM going on holidays during a bushfire disaster, and then there being lies told about that holiday, a holiday that no-one would begrudge any Prime Minister? And just last week we found out that Ben Morton, the former member for Tangney, was appointed by the Governor-General to administer the Department of Home Affairs, and it seems that the current member for Capricornia was included in the secrecy as well. Of course, this was never made public. Even the then Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, said she knew nothing about it, although I acknowledge that she did call it out later, to her never-ending credit. Sadly, I couldn't say the same of the rest of her former cabinet colleagues. They're like cardboard in the rain: they've completely lost their structural integrity.
This leads us to what this bill before the chamber, the Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022, is all about—ensuring that we do not see the shameful exploitation of the rules that allow a Prime Minister to secretly appoint themselves as a minister of the Crown. We're doing this because the former Prime Minister the member for Cook appointed himself to five extra portfolios. We have had other prime ministers briefly have a couple of portfolios. I know that we saw it with Whitlam and others, when they were fresh into government, but this was not one of those circumstances. We'd already had the Abbott-Turnbull conga line progression through to Morrison, the member for Cook, not an MP who I would say is blessed with lots of vision. I've seen disused service stations with more vision than the member for Cook. But he thought he needed more power. He made five self-appointments that he told no-one in his own government about, although at least two National MPs knew, after he swooped in and scuttled PEP-11. But it seems they didn't bother to tell anyone, because they were more focused on squeezing some extra stuff out of the deal for the Nationals—not the Australian people. They were just looking after themselves—reprehensible. It's almost as bad as their position on the Voice. How out of touch with the bush are these people in the Nationals?
The other four ministers whom the member for Cook rode roughshod over—including his supposed best mate, the then Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg—had no idea about this set of arrangements. The fourth estate didn't know, and the Australian people didn't know. That's why this parliament needs to fix it so that it can never happen again. We need to take action to protect our valuable, precious democratic conventions. It's a very sorry day to be in parliament and have to protect our democracy in such a way in 2023. We have to ensure that the Australian public are able to access information related to the composition of the federal Executive Council. It's bizarre that we're doing it, I know, for those listening—that we have to protect our democracy. This is how bizarre the circumstances that befall us because of the actions of the member for Cook are. Those appointed to administer certain departments of state and the high offices that ministers of state hold should all be public.
It's with some reflection that I think of the actions that have been taken since. I will detail them. We had the Solicitor-General's advice that what had occurred was incorrect—no surprises there. We had Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the Attorney-General establish an inquiry into the appointment of the former Prime Minister to administer multiple departments, led by former High Court justice the Hon. Virginia Bell AC, a very well-respected legal mind. Those opposite moaned that this was nothing more than a witch-hunt or a political pointscoring exercise. Maybe that's why they're taking quorum calls throughout the day. I'm not sure. I wanted to know: how was this allowed to happen, who was involved and, most importantly, how can we stop it happening again? As I said when I started this speech, transparency and accountability were not the hallmarks of the Morrison LNP government, but they will be the hallmarks of every Labor government. If the member for Cook hadn't casually told reporters who were writing a book about him what he had done, we might well still be in the dark today. This is why the investigation was required and essential. The final report was provided to government on 25 November 2022, which now leads to where we are today.
The Labor government accepted all of Ms Bell's recommendations, and the introduction of this bill is one part of meeting that commitment—debating and voting for legislation to ensure that such behaviour could never happen again. Democracy is too precious. We cannot allow our system of government, parliament and cabinet to be undermined like this ever again. We cannot have another situation where our prime minister secretly desires to be the health minister, the finance minister, the industry, science, energy and resources minister, the Treasurer and the home affairs minister.
It's little wonder that trust in our democracy is at an all-time low. That is sad for most of us in this place—and I mean on both sides of the chamber—who take our role in this democratic institution very seriously and professionally. I'm proud to be a parliamentarian, and I take my duty seriously. Most of us in this place, irrespective of where we sit in the chamber, are here because we believe in the power of democracy, of representation, of this parliament and of governments to change the lives of Australians for the better. That is why most people want to be in parliament and want to work for those changes on behalf of their constituents. I've been here since 2007, and I would say all but one, two or three of the people I've met in that time—MPs and senators—have been motivated by the same thing: to help their constituents or the people they represent—if, indeed, that is what senators do. The fact that a Prime Minister of this country had such disregard for those principles was shocking.
That is why it was the right thing for this parliament to censure the former Prime Minister. I noted, as earlier speakers have noted, that there was then a queue of blokes lining up to pat him on the back. Support is one thing, but brazenly pushing away any skerrick of responsibility was not the right gesture, I would suggest. The parliament and we here as representatives of the people in our communities had to stand up and say this was a serious breach of trust and must never happen again. It was a sad sight to see all of that backslapping and the congratulations after the member for Cook spoke against the censure. It just shows that they still can't see how damaging the actions of the former PM were and that they were as badly deceived by the member for Cook as the Australian people were.
I know that this would never happen under our Prime Minister and our government, but who's to say that a future conservative government might not think, 'Hey, let's do it again'? So the parliament was right to censure the former Prime Minister, because this must never happen. It must not happen again, because the people who are elected to this place to represent their communities, and even more so the people who are appointed to ministries and to be prime minister of this country, need to be publicly recognised. They should have at their heart a respect for democracy and for the conventions of our system that enable ministers, governments and members to be held accountable.
Specifically, this bill will require the Official Secretary to the Governor-General to publish a notifiable instrument on the Federal Register of Legislation as soon as reasonably practical in the following circumstances: when the Governor-General has chosen, summoned and sworn an executive councillor to the Federal Executive Council, or when the Governor-General has appointed an officer to administer a department of state or directed a minister of state to hold an office. It will also require notification of the revocation of any of these positions to be published.
The notifiable instrument will include the name of the person, the department of state, where appropriate, and the date on which they were sworn, appointed or directed. In the case of revocations, the notifiable instrument is to include the name of the person, the name of the former office and the date that such membership appointment or direction was revoked. The notifiable instrument may also comprise a copy of an instrument issued by the Governor-General. These are the necessary steps to provide trust and accountability to the people of Australia. They need to know who ministers are. We cannot have a situation where secrecy is at the heart of appointments.
The introduction of this bill shows that the Albanese government is delivering on its promise to restore trust and integrity to federal politics. The measures in the bill will help restore integrity and transparency in the process of appointing elected officials to high office and ensure that we have a system of government where there are checks and balances. Never let anyone have too much power. Never again will one person be able to garner powers without adequate and warranted accountability, both to the Australian people and, more importantly, to the Australian parliament, where their representatives sit.
Lastly, as the centrepiece of returning accountability and transparency to politics at the federal level is the establishment of the powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission. It's something that Labor took to the last election, something that will make sure we take another step towards restoring accountability in the Australian democratic system. I commend the legislation to the chamber.