House debates

Thursday, 23 March 2023


Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading

4:13 pm

Photo of Maria VamvakinouMaria Vamvakinou (Calwell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Prior to being interrupted, I was in the process of speaking about the Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022 and saying how important it was that we pass this bill, because it's designed to reinforce the principles of responsible government. I wanted to highlight how important honesty, integrity and accountability are to the proper functioning of our democratic government. They are important everywhere and to almost all Australians, but we feel this particularly keenly in my electorate of Calwell.

Calwell is one of the many outer suburban electorates around Australia with a very high proportion of citizens and residents who were born overseas. Many of those who have migrated to our great country have come as refugees or as people wanting to escape war, corruption, persecution or just general chaos in the countries they've left behind. They come to Australia with high hopes of stability, a healthy democracy and a system that makes sense and works as it was intended—where there are no secrets, no handshakes behind closed doors, no rules that apply to some but not all. A government that uses its power and position to mislead, to subvert longstanding conventions and to avoid proper scrutiny is not what we hold up as an Australian standard to any of our citizens, longstanding or recent.

I get the opportunity, like most members in this place, to attend citizenship ceremonies. In my electorate, they are happening in the dozens, literally. There are so many people becoming new citizens. It's fortunate that the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs is in the chamber today, because I get the opportunity to read out his message. I was going to quote from the message, but I think I'm just going to read it into Hansard because it speaks a lot about the values that we—

An honourable member: It starts with 'thank you'.

It starts with a 'thank you'. It also tells newly admitted citizens that they are now living in a democracy and that they are joining a community that has high standards and high values. It says:

Thank you for deciding to become an Australian citizen.

Today you join a nation that is one of the world's most successful multicultural societies, with around half of all Australians either born overseas, or with at least one parent born overseas.

In Australia, everyone can be proud of who they are—and everyone should be respected, valued and feel a sense of belonging.

We are privileged to share this beautiful country with the world's oldest continuing culture. This is a fundamental part of who we are.

For more than 60,000 years First Nations peoples have cared for country. Appreciating and understanding this truth, is a vital part of what it means to be Australian.

Australians are united by our shared commitment to democracy and the rule of law, and to freedom of speech, religion and association.

Our diversity is our greatest strength, and we prosper by embracing this.

We believe in a society in which everyone is equal, regardless of their gender, faith, sexual orientation, age, ability, race, national or ethnic origin. Ours is the land of the fair go, in which respect and compassion underpin our care for each other and our willingness to reach out to those around us in times of need.

By becoming an Australian citizen, you make a commitment to these values, and to contribute to our evolving Australian story.

And, of course, on behalf of the Australian government we congratulate everyone.

Our democracy is precious, and we cannot take it for granted. Central to protecting our democracy is enshrining transparency, accountability and the public's right to know. As the Solicitor-General stated:

… 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.

This amendment is one important step in restoring the Australian people's confidence in our federal system of government, and it will help to ensure greater transparency and accountability and will implement the first of the six recommendations from the Bell inquiry. It is a step in the rebuilding of integrity in public sector institutions and programs, and I look forward to a strengthened relationship of trust between government and nation through the proper functioning of parliament and executive across all areas of public policy and service delivery. I commend this bill to the House.

4:18 pm

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a pleasure to join this very important debate on the Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022 and a particular pleasure to follow my friend the member for Calwell. I might return to her remarks shortly.

But I want to start by recognising that during the course of the pandemic something quite remarkable happened—something remarkable and important but also precious—and that is that we saw an increase in trust in our politics and in our democratic institutions as people appreciated how vital it was to have a functioning democracy, a functioning parliament and, of course, a functioning government. This turned around a trend that had beset Australia and, indeed, most advanced democracies for quite some time. To see people feel the absolutely fundamental importance of government as a force for good in our lives and a necessary force in hard times is something that I hope every member in this place and the other place takes very seriously.

But this trend, unfortunately, proved to be somewhat illusory. It was a light at the end of the tunnel but turned out to be a train in the form of the Morrison government—in particular some of the decision-making of the former Prime Minister the member for Cook. The actions that give rise to the necessity of adopting this bill into law really go to the heart of our democratic system, our system of responsible government, as the Solicitor-General has highlighted and as other members, in making their contribution to this debate, have touched upon. What happened in secret ripped apart the very core of our democratic traditions in Australia and denied that sense of trust and confidence in government that should be so important to everyone in this place. The 151 members of the House of Representatives bring to this place their values, their sense of how the world is and how the world should be. I'm sure all of us bring to it a sincere appreciation of our duty not just to represent our constituents but also to make the case for our view of the world, to be part of a democratic conversation. That is something that we clearly can't take for granted, because it has been undermined absolutely fundamentally.

That is why this bill is so important, and I'm pleased to join so many of my colleagues not only in committing to vote for the Ministers of State Amendment Bill but in placing on the record my very serious view about the need for this bill. Perhaps we shouldn't see the need for such a bill. Perhaps it's understandable that, over the course of the 120-odd years of our Commonwealth parliamentary democracy, no-one previously thought that it could be required, because it is absolutely extraordinary that a prime minister would commission, or cause to be commissioned, ministers into office without informing the public, without informing his colleagues around the cabinet table and without informing the parliament.

I'm very honoured—it is the greatest honour of my working life—to be appointed as a minister in the Albanese government. It's a responsibility I take seriously, and I know all of my colleagues in the executive—I see the member for Fenner here too—take this responsibility, this privilege, this duty, very seriously. I think about that not only broadly, as having the opportunity to make decisions as part of executive government, but particularly in the context of the responsibilities that I have as a minister in the home affairs department, as the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs. I'm very conscious that I'm granted, through the Migration Act, a number of discretionary powers—discretionary powers that only a minister in the home affairs department can rely upon. These powers are pretty significant in the lives of individuals but also insofar as our national interest is upheld and preserved. It is absolutely extraordinary that there could be uncertainty as to which members of a government could be entrusted such sweeping discretionary powers.

It's particularly extraordinary that the minister who quite rightly regarded herself as being sworn in to oversight this had absolutely no idea that others had recourse to these powers. The line of thinking about what could have happened and how the rights of individuals and our national interest could have been undermined through this uncertainty is quite terrifying. This is one example, out of many, of the democratic and real-life consequences of the practices undertaken by the member for Cook which would be redressed quickly through the enactment of this bill—a bill that should surely be supported by every member and senator in this place.

Amongst my responsibilities, as my friend the member for Calwell noted, I am privileged to be the minister for citizenship, and part of that privilege is providing the minister's message, a message on behalf of the Australian government, to our newest Australians. I thank the member for Calwell for the courtesy and kindness she's just extended to me. Part of that message, of course, talks about the common bonds that we share as Australians. Fundamental to that is an appreciation of our commitment to democracy and the rule of law. How ironic that the leader of Australia's government could so profoundly undermine both of those fundamental Australian values!

It goes deeper than that, actually, because those people who become Australian citizens sit a citizenship test. A big part of that citizenship test, as all members would be well aware, involves members—prospective citizens, rather, but they may be prospective members of this place too!—being tested on their understanding of the rule of law, democracy and our system of government and the law. How ironic that a former prime minister who was also a former minister responsible for immigration and citizenship—although he didn't talk too much about those responsibilities; everything seemed to be an on-water matter in those days—could so profoundly undermine that. How shocking—and in a majority migrant nation, too. I believe having this process of building on our shared understanding of what it means to be Australian is an important part of building a stronger nation. The very least the government can do is seek to support those shared aspirations and seek to build a stronger understanding about how our democratic systems work, and, indeed, how they might work better—not undermine them.

The contrast between the attitude of the former government, in particular the member for Cook, and the government led by Anthony Albanese could not be greater. This government has a big agenda, and the last 10 months have demonstrated that. The member for Canberra set out in a short contribution a very effective highlights reel of some of the substantive achievements—the things that are changing the lives of individual Australians for the better and changing our country for the better, too. I think about those things; I think about each and every one of them. But the bigger thing is rebuilding the sense that politics matters, eroding the corrosive cynicism that pervades so many in our communities who don't believe that our democracy is working as it should. It's a cynicism, unfortunately, that is shared not only by those who are clearly at the very top of the former government but by members who still sit opposite, who clearly do not have the courage of their convictions and who do not believe that we can have a democratic system anchored in strong institutions, institutions that are about transparency and integrity, so that the accountability that is fundamental to our system of government can be maintained, so that every member of our community can have trust and confidence in our system of government.

We are doing so much as a government to rebuild trust and confidence in Australian democracy. But that begins with the passage of this bill, making it very clear who is entrusted on behalf of the Australian people to undertake executive office so that they can be held to account—including, of course, in this place, every sitting day, in question time. It shouldn't be a difficult proposition for this to be clearly set out to every member of the Australian community—indeed, to every member of this place: to whom they should be addressing their questions and their concerns, and of whom they can demand answers. That should be a pretty fundamental principle. I am disappointed that we've seen very few contributions from members opposite—again, with a couple of exceptions that recognise the importance of this.

Beginning to restore trust and confidence rests in the passage of this bill, but that isn't the whole of the task that's before us. I'm so pleased that, after prevarication and, again, more of the cynicism that so characterised the administration of the member for Cook, we now have a national anticorruption commission. We now have, in this jurisdiction, to go with the other eight jurisdictions in Australia, a mechanism where people who make decisions over the lives of others can be properly held to account. People can be properly held to account for their bureaucratic decision-making, and people such as me and Minister McBain here can be held to account in this place, as we should be, with people knowing exactly what it is we are charged to be responsible for. It shouldn't be hard for that to be accepted as a basic standard.

When we think about building trust and confidence in politics, there is a big step forward that we are about to embark upon as a nation—that is, to recognise in our Constitution our First Peoples. I think we can all be proud of the work that's been led by Minister Burney, championed by the Prime Minister, and so many others in putting forward to the Australian people a proposition that answers the very generous gesture put together in the Uluru Statement from the Heart so that we can complete our national birth certificate and ensure that debate in this place and in government is informed by the perspective of First Nations people—another very big step towards this.

Debate interrupted.