House debates

Thursday, 23 March 2023


Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading

9:35 am

Photo of Tracey RobertsTracey Roberts (Pearce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of the Ministers of State Amendment Bill. Integrity and accountability should be central to everything we do, both inside and outside this parliament. These qualities should be a constant, especially for parliamentarians like ourselves, not only because we should set and uphold those standards but because Australians demand and deserve their representatives to do so—to be honest and display integrity in every decision, every interaction and every behaviour. Our democracy demands those qualities and our democracy is worth protecting. Governments should operate in the nation's interests, governing for the people who elect us to represent them. This is how I serve my community of the electorate of Pearce. The community's interests and needs are first and foremost in my mind, as is operating with the highest level of integrity in advocating for all my constituents. I listen to my community, and what they tell me is that integrity is vitally important to them. That is why the response to the Albanese government's decision to establish the National Anti-Corruption Commission has been so positive. The National Anti-Corruption Commission has been warmly welcomed by the people of Pearce, and rightly so. Australians want and deserve accountability and integrity, and they will get that through the important work and oversight of the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

Members of our community have been rightly horrified by some of the actions taken by the former government. One example was when they learnt that, between March 2020 and May 2021, the former Prime Minister and member for Cook was appointed by the Governor-General to administer five portfolios, in addition to his appointment to administer the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The former Prime Minister had quietly helped himself to a few extra portfolio responsibilities. He'd kept his colleagues and the public out of the loop and created a secret stash of ministries on top of what he already had. This was nothing less than an extraordinary scenario. It left many people astonished when the news broke and the secret was revealed.

In addition, just last week we discovered, through freedom of information requests, that the member for Cook's secret appointments extended beyond himself. Documents have revealed the assiduous approach of the previous coalition government in appointing ministers. Multiple assistant ministers were appointed to multiple departments. For example, the former member for Tangney was also appointed to administer the Department of Home Affairs and the member for Capricornia was also appointed to administer the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. While these appointments were gazetted, the member for Cook specifically requested that there be no swearing in ceremonies—no public events to show what he was doing—and no changes to the official ministry lists.

It is unfortunate that over the past decade the people's trust in politicians and politics has been eroded. We must change that. The Ministers of State Amendment Bill will go a long way to restoring that trust. It is important for my electorate of Pearce that I speak on this bill. The Ministers of State Amendment Bill provides for greater transparency and accountability in Commonwealth administration, something Australians want and deserve. This bill will ensure that Australians are able to access information about the composition of the federal Executive Council. It will ensure Australians know who is appointed to administer certain departments of state and the high offices that ministers hold. It will prevent a situation ever again occurring whereby a Prime Minister can appoint himself or herself to ministries in secret, just as the former Prime Minister the member for Cook did. The former Prime Minister did so while his Liberal and National Party colleagues were blissfully unaware. It was a long list of roles, in the departments of health, finance, industry, science, energy and resources, Treasury and home affairs. Bear in mind that this was in addition to his appointment to administer the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

In contrast we, the Albanese Labor government, are doing things differently, to have a positive impact on our nation, to make the lives of Australians better every day and in every way we possibly can. We are here for the Australian people, caring for and supporting families, businesses and organisations. We are creating a legacy of positive changes for our communities and our electorates. This is what drives us. I'm so honoured to be a part of this positive and lasting change. We are easing cost-of-living pressures by providing many positive changes that help families, including cheaper child care, because early childhood education is vitally important for life outcomes, and cheaper medicines, because we want to make sure people don't forgo the medication that they need because they can't afford it. For the first time in 75 years, the maximum cost of medicines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme has fallen. We made that happen. We are investing in social and affordable housing to tackle housing pressures. We are investing $10 billion to establish the Housing Australia Future Fund. Returns from the fund will be used to build 30,000 new social and affordable dwellings over five years. On wages, we are getting them moving again— (Quorum formed)

I will continue. On wages, we are getting them moving again, supporting and standing up for lowest-paid workers as inflation bites. One of the Albanese government's first actions was to support wage increases for Australia's lowest-paid workers, to ensure their real wages do not go backwards. The Fair Work Commission delivered a minimum pay rise of $40 per week for full-time workers, benefiting around 2.7 million workers. We are supporting gender equality under workforce participation, which is great for our economy. We are supporting families and working parents by expanding paid parental leave, which has passed the Senate. This expansion is the biggest reform to the scheme since it was introduced. Expanding paid parental leave will enhance economic security, improve gender equality and increase participation and productivity. Importantly, it will support parents to spend more time with their children and share caring responsibilities more equally. These are some of the robust policies the Albanese government is driving for Australians.

Going back: when the government referred the former Prime Minister's secret appointments to the Solicitor-General, Dr Stephen Donaghue KC, Dr Donaghue advised that the principles of responsible government were 'fundamentally undermined' by the actions of the former government, and that:

… 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.

In August 2022 our current Prime Minister and the Attorney-General announced the establishment of the Inquiry into the Appointment of the Former Prime Minister to Administer Multiple Departments. This was led by former High Court justice the Hon. Virginia Bell AC. The final report by former High Court justice Bell was provided to the government in November last year.

The Ministers of State Amendment Bill forms part of the government's response to the Bell inquiry. The bill will amend the Ministers of State Act 1952 to provide for greater transparency and accountability at the Commonwealth level of Australia's system of government. In simple terms, it will achieve that by ensuring the Australian people are able to access information about who is doing what in government—simple, but absolutely necessary.

The Bell inquiry was truly an extraordinary moment in time for Australian politics. The fact that a former High Court justice was required to investigate a former Prime Minister for swearing himself into multiple secret portfolios, and the fact that the former Prime Minister did so without notifying his colleagues—there can be no better, or should I say worse, example of a reason to need this bill than this secret-portfolio affair. Although, the shocking and damaging robodebt was also a dreadful and low moment in Australian politics that left the public reeling. And what about sports rorts? That was another funding disgrace by the previous government.

There is good reason to establish an anticorruption body, as the Labor government is delivering. Democracy can be severely damaged by a lack of transparency. Politics and this place must be open, fair, decisive, responsible and caring, and above all else it must be accountable. We must—I repeat, we must—ensure transparency in our government processes. Our system of parliamentary democracy relies upon conventions and the Westminster traditions of checks and balances.

The Albanese Labor government has accepted all the recommendations of the Bell inquiry into the former Prime Minister's sneaky, secret, squirrel ministries. Our progress on this matter shows the Albanese Labor government is delivering on its promise to restore trust and integrity to federal politics. At the heart of that is the establishment of the powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission. The measures in the Ministers of State Amendment Bill will ensure integrity and transparency in the process of appointing elected officials to high office. Never again will one person be able to garner powers without adequate and warranted accountability to the Australian people and the Australian parliament.

The actions of the former Prime Minister the member for Cook have been strongly condemned not just by the Australian public but by multiple former Liberal prime ministers too. The former Prime Minister appointed himself the Minister for Finance but did not even tell his own finance minister, an extraordinary move. The former Prime Minister had zero respect for the then finance minister to not even have mentioned his bizarre appointment.

Every member of this place, including those opposite, should care about the integrity of our parliamentary process and the people who we are privileged to represent. We should be able to leave here with our heads held high, knowing that we served to the best of our ability with integrity, honesty and transparency and with heart. The Australian people deserve nothing less, and I commend this bill to the House.


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