House debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023


Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading

12:11 pm

Photo of Sally SitouSally Sitou (Reid, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before the last election and in the months since I've been out doorknocking all across my electorate. It's a diverse electorate with a range of diverse opinions. We don't agree on everything and I think that's good. I like that people in my area have strong views and beliefs that they are happy to share with me. But one thing that I heard loud and clear before the last election was that politics, politicians and the institutions of government have taken a real hit when it comes to trust. Recent research from the Governance Institute of Australia listed the least trusted occupations in the country. Let's take a guess where we ranked in that list. Three out of the top four spots were taken by politicians. No. 1 for least trusted were state politicians; No. 2 all those in the chamber here, federal politicians; No. 3 real estate agents and No. 4 local politicians. This is not a list you want to do well on.

These results are worrying because the lack of trust has real impacts on how this country runs. That's why I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this bill. It's part of this Labor government's determination to build back trust with the electorate. The bill goes to the heart of what this place does—that is, to the heart of responsible government. Responsible government are two words that in many respects are completely ordinary, but which have a fundamentally important role to play in this place and what we do here.

When the member for Cook went about appointing himself to five additional ministries he rode roughshod over those principles of responsible government, the very essence of what keeps this place ticking. Worse than that, he helped to burn through public trust, one of the most important ingredients to make our democratic institutions work. Let's rewind a bit to August 2022 when the news broke that the member for Cook, while holding the office of Prime Minister, had gone on a power grab unprecedented in this nation's history. I thank Justice Virginia Bell for her examination of the facts here. The member for Cook appointed himself the minister for health on 14 March 2020. A couple of weeks later he also appointed himself Minister for Finance. Twelve months go past and the itch returns and in April of 2021 this time he takes on the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. As we've all learnt, this is where he bundled the member for Hinkler out of the way, so he could make a decision on PEP-11. A month later, the member for Cook took both Home Affairs and Treasury. For those keeping score, that's one man with six portfolios.

One of the most astounding things about this episode was the secrecy with which these arrangements were made. At no stage did the member for Cook make the public or this parliament aware of his additional appointments. In fact, in the cases of his appointments to Health, Finance, Home Affairs and Treasury, the member for Cook didn't even inform the relevant ministers. What are the implications of this? David Crowe, the chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, describes it succinctly: 'There was a blurring of responsibility, an absence of accountability.' One of the central tenets of the Westminster system is that of ministerial accountability. How is the parliament supposed to keep the member for Cook accountable for his actions when it didn't even know about his extra responsibilities? How were Australians supposed to keep him accountable for the extraordinary power he had, when he didn't publicly disclose those powers?

We all come to this place sent by the Australian people to exercise enormous responsibility. I feel that every day. I know the minister for early education, who is at the table, feels that too. We are accountable to the people who elected us to this place. I am accountable to the people of Reid, and I feel that weight of responsibility every day. For ministers, there is an additional layer of responsibility, to the parliament and to the public. It is extraordinary that the member for Cook, in his frenzy for power, never thought his appointment to multiple ministries might pose a problem with accountability.

Even more bizarre, in his response to the Bell inquiry, the member for Cook tried to make a virtue of this secrecy. He stated that because his colleagues didn't know about his appointment, this showed that he restrained from interfering. How generous of him. He still doesn't get it. It wasn't about your colleagues, though they too were understandably furious. It was about this parliament and, more importantly, those people who we are here to represent.

All of this has come from a so-called conservative. It was the member for Cook who, in his first speech, proposed a vision of Australia. I want to quote from his speech here. It was a vision of Australia that was 'strong in its sense of nationhood and in the institutions that protect and preserve our democracy'. How exactly did trashing the basic norms of constitutional government protect and preserve our democracy? I will save you the suspense, Deputy Speaker: it didn't.

And it doesn't stop there. Because, with the exception of just a few—notably, the member for Bass—so many of those sitting opposite backed the member for Cook's actions. We can all remember their response to this House's censure motion. They rose to their feet clapping and gathered around to shake his hand—a bit of solidarity with their old mate, a solidarity at the expense of the country's basic constitutional norms. They had a chance to condemn his actions, and they chose not to. All of them are allegedly conservatives. All of them are allegedly interested in protecting this nation's institutions and democracy. What frauds. We will never be lectured by those opposite on the importance of institutions and the preciousness of democracy in this House—never. With only a few exceptions, those opposite have given up that right. They are, and will continue to be, a party of radicals, not a party of modern conservatives.

And don't be mistaken. This has real practical impacts for everyday life in Australia, because this sort of action is corrosive: corrosive of trust and corrosive of that important relationship between voters and their representatives in this place. When trust fails, as we see increasingly all around the world, it can have an impact on people's lives, because a lack of trust breeds cynicism and, ultimately, degrades the foundations of democracy.

According to Transparency International, over the last decade, Australia has slid down the rankings of the Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2012, Australia scored 85 out of a score of 100. So we were doing quite well. By 2021, that had dropped to 73—a 12-point drop. That is less trust from the public and more cynicism. Even though it's extraordinary this bill needs to be passed by the House, it's worth examining what it does, to ensure such institutional abuses don't happen in the future.

The core of this bill amends the Ministers of State Act 1952 to provide increased transparency into executive government appointments. This will require the publishing of appointments and revocations of ministers from ministerial offices as soon as it is practical—not months later and not after an election cycle. It's a simple change, but one that will mean no future Prime Minister can secretly appoint themselves to multiple ministries without the public being notified.

These changes will have the effect of building on this Labor government's determination to restore trust in this place. It builds on our work to establish a National Anti-Corruption Commission. Because this is a government that knows we need to rebuild trust with the public. That trust is fundamental to making this country work, and that trust should never be taken for granted or diminished. That's why making sure the member for Cook's actions can't be repeated without extensive public scrutiny is so important.

To those opposite, I say: back this bill. It will show that you don't endorse the actions of the former Prime Minister, who trashed our institutional norms. It will show you support our democracy and its institutions. Thank you.

12:22 pm

Photo of Tania LawrenceTania Lawrence (Hasluck, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The attitude of every member of parliament towards the democratic institutions and conventions that we work within matters. Every member here receives messages every day from constituents and others telling us about the threats to democracy and freedom from all corners of the world. Democracy begins at home. We all need to work together, every day, to maintain our democratic system. Within that system our Prime Minister is sometimes referred to as 'the first among equals'. The former Prime Minister, the member for Cook, was not content to be first among equals. He quietly became first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth among equals.

This simple legislation, the Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022, is designed to help ensure that this does not happen again—at least not quietly. Let's imagine for a moment what would have happened if every time the member for Cook had been appointed to another ministry, instead of doing it on the sly, he had actually let the Australian people and his cabinet colleagues know about it. There would have been disquiet, incredulity perhaps, disagreement, lively question times in this place, almost certainly a Senate inquiry and the odd resignation of an affronted minister. Perhaps more people would have voted against the Liberals last May. We don't know. We don't know because this didn't happen.

The real problem here is the secrecy. Members opposite have not yet managed to come to this, but they do need to, because our system of government requires transparency, disclosures, checks and balances. Even here in this place, every movement a backbencher makes is broadcast in advance, to the point where we are never really surprised about who is speaking when and even for how long.

Without transparency, democracy is at risk. The website states that 'democracy's resilience is inherently connected to the health of its institutions.' When a nation turns away from democracy it doesn't happen all at once. Rather, it is white-anted through attacks on one democratic institution at a time. In some countries the executive starts to attack the judiciary or to stack it with their cronies. In others, elections are postponed, promised, and delayed again and again. Gerrymanders and other unfair electoral laws eat away at confidence. In some places journalists are too fearful to criticise their government. Some governments carry out surveillance of their citizens without the safeguards we have here, and in some places the parliament starts to be ignored by the executive, just here and there at first with little things and then with greater matters. In these places, citizens can end up losing so much of their faith and confidence in their government that they end up having no respect or regard for it at all. Which trajectory did the member for Cook want us to be on?

We have an array of checks and balances in our system. They are there for a reason, and members of parliament are their first line of defence. This legislation is here because one person, inhabiting a position where everyone would have simply assumed a certain degree of commitment to democratic norms and conventions, was shown to be somewhat less committed to those norms and conventions than he needed to be. The member for Cook is still here. I don't mean he is present, but he is still the member for Cook. No-one knows why. The good people of Cook do not have a real representative here anymore.

In relation to his strange, irresponsible and undemocratic behaviour, the member for Cook stated variously that they were difficult times, that he had himself given secret powers 'just in case' and that they were never used. And then he said he used one, but that was different, and it was in the national interest anyway. It's the sort of intellectual and moral gymnastics that we have become used to from that member. It would have been more just if Australians had been able to pass judgment on this behaviour at the election last May. They couldn't, because he hadn't told them.

I do not want to merely address the failings of the member for Cook. There are more numerous failings to address in this matter. Last year, members opposite had the chance to censure the member for Cook for this behaviour. They failed to do that. The standard we walk past is the standard we accept. I must admit, I was a little stunned at the readiness with which coalition members forgave the member for Cook and failed to censure him for what was a flagrant behaviour at odds with our democracy.

This failure seemed to come down to one of three factors. Firstly, some members opposite may simply not understand how fundamental the need for transparency, for honesty, is in these circumstances. They need to go back to political school on that one. One of the workshops of the McKinnon Institute course that I and other new members completed last year challenged us to determine how we discharge our obligations and responsibilities in ways that preserve and guard against the erosion of fundamental values. I recommend, to all members present, the excellent professional development series offered by the McKinnon Institute.

Secondly, I'm sure some members gave it no thought at all. They simply followed the party line. They thought that party loyalty came before their duty to their electors and to the parliament. Party loyalty is a good and useful thing. On this side of the House, solidarity has been a large part of the ALP's success for over 120 years. Does it come before your duty to the Australian people? No, it doesn't.

Thirdly, there is the factor of friendship. Some members simply like the member for Cook. He is their mate, and they don't want to censure their mate. I am a new member but I've got some news for members: we don't come into this place to make friends. We may well make friends—and hopefully we will make friends on all sides—but we have a duty here to the 150,000 souls we each represent. We have a duty to the Australian people to do the right thing. We have to separate our personal attachments to each other from our work, both in considering each piece of legislation and with regard to each unparliamentary behaviour that needs to be brought to account. If that means you upset your friend, then you upset your friend. If that means you have to censure your friend, then you censure your friend.

I can quote usefully here from a friend of mine, one of my former bosses, once Premier of Western Australia, Mr Geoff Gallop. In his essay published in the Australasian Parliamentary Review in 2009, entitled The role of a member of parliament, Mr Gallop states:

In fulfilling all of these functions and responsibilities there is a legal, indeed a constitutional principle involved—the public interest.

…   …   …

It is up to the Member to make sense of all of this in a way that is efficient, effective and ethical.


… they should do all of this in the knowledge not only that the electorate is the ultimate authority but also with a full understanding of what is right and what is wrong in the way they go about their activities. These are important checks and balances which we ignore at our peril.

Before he entered politics in the 1980s, Mr Gallop was an educator, and he teaches still.

As members of parliament, we need to understand our duties. I'm still very much a student of this. It beggars belief, though, that members opposite were unable to bring themselves to censure the member for Cook. There is no real excuse. They had the Solicitor-General's advice that 'the principles of responsible government are fundamentally undermined' by the actions of the former government. They had the report the former High Court justice Bell, who noted that the lack of disclosure was 'apt to undermine public confidence in government'. They had opinions from respected academics such as Patrick Weller, emeritus professor of politics at Griffith University, who described the undermining of ministerial responsibility, and constitutional law professor Anne Twomey, who said:

He was like a ghost minister no one could see. It is conduct that is contrary to the level of transparency one would expect from a government.

They also had the benefit of no end of press, summed up well by reporter Katharine Murphy's conclusion:

… he disdained parliamentary and democratic conventions that are fundamentally important—conventions that exist to prevent abuses of power.

If only there were some authoritative source on such matters that members could refer to! The House of Representatives Practice: 7th Edition, page 34, says:

… the House of Representatives is the people's House and the inheritance of responsible government, through the Cabinet system, is the most significant characteristic attaching to it.

Members opposite—apart from the member for Bass, who is a credit to her party—ignored all of that. Some members also even managed to ignore themselves. The member for McPherson, upon learning that she'd been merely the co-pilot as Minister for Home Affairs, said:

I had absolutely no knowledge and was not told … This undermines the integrity of government.

She was quite right. Did she then vote to censure the member for Cook? No, she did not. The member for McPherson stuck her head up out of the trench for a moment, saw how lonely it was up there and got down in the trench again.

There were a few other interesting comments from the opposition early on. Senator Birmingham described the issue as 'curious, troubling and worthy of some explanation', while the now Leader of Opposition, the member for Dickson, had to admit he was unaware as to whether he also may have been merely a co-pilot as Minister for Defence.

As Minister Burke noted in his speech on the censure motion, many more gave their reaction off the record, but the Hansard is the record. Members opposite are recorded there failing to censure the member for Cook. Well, they had their chance, they made their call and they got it wrong. It's a failure and it's a failure in their duties to this place, to their constituents and to their country at large. The member for Dickson failed to censure the former Prime Minister, the member for Cook, for misleading the parliament. The member for McPherson failed to censure the former Prime Minister, the member for Cook, for misleading the parliament. The member for Maranoa failed to censure the former Prime Minister, the member for Cook, for misleading the parliament. There were other members who failed, but they can breathe a little easy as I haven't the time now to name each and every one.

But let's look at the bill itself. This bill will make law the recommendations of the Bell inquiry. It merely requires public notice to be given in various ways about who is minister for what and for when. It's a simple bill for an act that seems to do very little. Someone wandering in from the street might look at it and say, 'Why do you even need a law to do that?' Well, for 120 years we didn't. For 120 years we had managed to get by with prime ministers who had enough knowledge of and respect for the institutions and conventions of government in this country that we didn't need such a law. Now, unfortunately, we do need it. I support the bill. For 120 years we have managed to get by with prime ministers who had enough knowledge of and respect for the institutions and conventions of government in this country, and we didn't need such a law. Now, unfortunately, we do need it. I support the bill.

Debate adjourned.