Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022

SECOND READING DEBATE - HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

This bill puts an end to a sorry saga in Australian contemporary politics. The passing of the Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022 will see an end to what was shocking to most Australians. Australia woke to the knowledge that, unbeknownst to the public, unbeknownst to members of his own government, unbeknownst to members of the opposition, the former prime minister Scott Morrison had, between March 2020 and May 2021, been appointed by the Governor-General to administer five portfolios in addition to his appointment to administer the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. There may be those who think this has been some kind of blip on the radar, but we are here with legislation in the chamber because of the serious nature of this. It needs to be corrected. We need to take action to protect our democratic conventions. It is a very sorry day to be in the parliament and to be part of having to protect our democracy in this way.

I note the presence of the member for McPherson and thank her for her response on becoming aware of this situation, because of course there were those in the then government who were sorely put upon in this process as well as those members of the opposition, those members of the crossbench and the public of Australia. It was a shocking thing to discover that our parliamentary conventions had been undermined, had been trashed, by a former prime minister.

It is with some reflection that I think of the actions that have been taken since. We had Solicitor-General's advice to say that what had occurred was incorrect. We had the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the AttorneyGeneral establish an inquiry into the appointment of the former prime minister to administer multiple departments which was led by former High Court justice the Honourable Justice Virginia Bell AC, with a final report provided to government on 25 November 2022, which finds us here, looking at legislation to ensure that this could not occur again; that our system of government, our system of parliament, our system of cabinet government could not be undermined in this way again.

It's not something that we can assume a quick fix and move on. It did create a moment where we have to pause and consider the slippery slope of the actions that were taken by the former prime minister and what a slope it put us on. The parliamentarians who sit in this place are elected to represent our communities. Let's face, we are a collection in the House of Representatives of 151 different individuals from all parts of this great country sent here to represent our communities. We participate in our democracy and, in good faith, we come here.

A parliament runs with procedures, with standing orders and with all of those things that are changeable by the parliament within the confines of the parliament. But above and beyond are the democratic conventions that this place depends upon for the smooth running of our country, that we depend upon to know that we have a truly representative democracy. Our democracy had been undermined is what we've found has occurred.

I am reminded, reflecting in preparation to speak on this bill, of the situation we find ourselves in now with a new government. I have great comfort in knowing that we have a prime minister who has served decades in this place, who is first a parliamentarian, a former Leader of the House, a former minister of the Crown and a current prime minister. He is imbued with respect for the parliament, respect for standing orders, respect for procedures and, most importantly, respect for our conventions and for our democracy. One of the first acts of this Prime Minister has been to act to protect that democracy, to right the axis and to say that our representative democracy is at the heart of this country and is something that should and will be protected. That's what this bill does; it puts an end to that sorry saga.

We've heard lots of speakers from around the country speak in what is, I would suggest, the Australian way. We take something serious and, to come to terms with it, sometimes look to humour, and there's been a lot of humour about secret ministries. There's been a lot of humour about a prime minister who didn't discuss these things with his own cabinet or with members of the government but went behind the scenes to create this scenario. It is the Australian way to create humour about that, and we can now smile and talk about five secret ministries. But the fact of the matter is that our democracy was being actively undermined when the former Prime Minister was also the Minister for Health; the Minister for Finance; the minister for industry, science, energy and resources; the Minister for Home Affairs; and the Treasurer, unbeknownst to anyone in this House and unbeknownst to the Australian public.

I note with interest that, since the beginning of the 47th Parliament, the member for Cook has spoken twice in this chamber, where he still sits as a member of our representative democracy. He spoke on the death of the Queen and he spoke in defence of himself in a censure motion. I note with interest that, in the 47th Parliament, a lot of legislation has gone through this House. In the health portfolio, there have been five pieces of legislation; in Finance, eight; in Industry, Science and Resources, one; in Home Affairs, four; and, in Treasury, 11. The member for Cook has not risen from his seat to speak on any of those for which he had sworn himself in as a minister in the 46th Parliament. There's legislation before us now that comes under those portfolios. The member for Cook has not risen from his seat once to speak on any of those pieces of legislation.

It is a sad day for our democracy that we are having to take action to protect convention—because our democracy relies on convention, and our democracy is the most precious thing this country has. In the outer west of Melbourne, in the suburb of Point Cook, there are people from 82 different countries living in the Point Cook community of which I represent a small part, and, across the city of Wyndham, that figure stands—suburbs with 80-plus people coming from around the world. And our democracy is the most important thing they come to share in. The fact that in this place and in our time we had a prime minister who was prepared to undermine that democracy, to have himself sworn into ministries secretly, in a trashing of the conventions of this place, is a sad day for our democracy—a very sad day. It's a sad day for the Australian public. It's a sad day for me, when I'll be at a school in my electorate on Friday where children will want to talk to me about our great democracy and about my role in it as their member for Lalor. I won't dwell on this with those children, because I hope this will be the last time our country will see a prime minister prepared to trash conventions in this way.

The other irony that many in the chamber have spoken about is that, in all of those ministries, there was one action taken, and that was in June 2022, obviously, around PEP-11. I heard from colleagues who said that, through the last term, the thought of that project going ahead was something that distressed their communities, and people actively campaigned on it. So it is astonishing that it was in this one portfolio that former prime minister Morrison chose to act, and chose to act in such a way that it has now raised the issue again for those communities, so they are going through another term of stress about this project. Of course, this government will ensure that proper processes are followed to deal with that issue, as will the New South Wales government. I quote Minister King, who said that she assures Australians that any decision she takes as federal Minister for Resources will always be based on sound evidence and in accordance with the law. But the fact of the matter is we are dealing with something again because the former prime minister chose to act in a way that was a breach of our convention and now those communities face that again.

The passing of this legislation will fix something once, but I know all of us on this side are hoping that it is a salutary lesson to all parliamentarians about the respect that is due this place, the respect that is due to convention and the respect that is due to the Australian public to deal honestly and openly with them and to ensure that we go through the election processes and for the Australian public to have the assurance that what happens from that day forward for each government is conducted by people who respect our democracy and respect convention.

I will finish by mentioning the fact that it was not just those on this side who were upset, mortified and horrified when we found that this had been the case. There are three former Liberal prime ministers who have condemned this conduct. John Howard said:

I don't think he should have done that, I don't think there was any need to do it, and I wouldn't have.

Let's take those phrases one at a time. The justification is that there was a pandemic and a crisis. Former prime minister Howard said, 'I don't think there was any need to do it.' Former prime minister Howard is correct. Former prime minister Tony Abbott said:

I'm not going to defend what was done … it is just highly unconventional, highly unorthodox and shouldn't have happened.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said:

This is sinister stuff. This is a secret government.

He also said:

… this is one of the most appalling things I have ever heard of in our federal government. I mean, the idea that a prime minister would be sworn into other ministries, secretly, is incredible.

Those wrongs will be righted when this legislation passes the House and laws will be put into place to ensure that this sorry saga can't be repeated by any prime minister in Australia's future. But it is a sad day when we need to do this, because respect for convention should drive all parliamentarians elected to this place. Respect for our democracy and respect for the Australian people should be what drives us. None of us should be seeking to undermine those conventions. None of us should be seeking to game the system, as it were.

I will leave my comments there and hope that we can look forward. I know in this government we can look forward to a government that respects convention.

 

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