House of Representatives
23 March 2023
Ministers Of State Amendment Bill 2022
This Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022 seeks to implement the first recommendation of the Report of the Inquiry into the Appointment of the Former Prime Minister to Administer Multiple Departments by Virginia Bell AC. That first recommendation requires the publication in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette of appointments to administer departments, directions to a minister of state to hold an office, the swearing in of an executive councillor or the revocation of any of these appointments. This is only the first of six recommendations from the Bell report, and it's worth recalling the conduct of the former Prime Minister that led to this point.
Ms Bell's report found that the member for Cook had been appointed to administer six of the 14 departments of state. None of these appointments were disclosed to the parliament or the public, and, in several cases, the minister who was responsible for the portfolio wasn't even told. Ms Bell described the member for Cook's explanations of these appointments as 'not easy to understand', which puts it charitably. She noted that the appointments were not necessary, as an acting minister could have been appointed in a matter of minutes.
The appointments to the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, the Department of Home Affairs and Treasury had, in the words of Ms Bell, 'little connection to the pandemic'. They were, instead, made because the member for Cook was concerned:
… that the incumbent minister might exercise his or her statutory powers in a manner with which Mr Morrison—
the member for Cook— did not agree.
Indeed, the member for Cook's appointment to the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources appears to have been made directly so that he could overturn the then minister, the member for Hinkler, Keith Pitt's decision to approve an offshore gas project. Just last month, the Federal Court overturned the member for Cook's decision due to questions about the member for Cook's impartiality in making the decision.
Ms Bell stated the conduct of the member for Cook had 'fundamentally undermined the principles of government'. She also said:
… the lack of disclosure of the appointments to the public was apt to undermine public confidence in government.
… the secrecy with which they had been surrounded was corrosive of trust in government.
The Solicitor-General, Stephen Donaghue KC, stated in his advice that Mr Morrison's appointments were:
… inconsistent with the conventions and practices that form an essential part of the system of responsible government prescribed by Ch II of the Constitution. That is because it is impossible for Parliament and the public to hold Ministers accountable for the proper administration of particular departments if the identity of the Ministers who have been appointed to administer those departments is not publicised.
We see this every sitting day in question time, when the Speaker calls a minister to answer a question. And yet in question time under the former government, the former prime minister could well have popped up and said, 'Well, as it happens, I am also the Treasurer, I'm also the resources minister.' This would have been extraordinary, but it was the state of affairs that prevailed under the Liberals.
Just last week we learned that the appointments went beyond the member for Cook. Ben Morton was appointed to administer the Home Affairs Department and the member for Capricornia, Michelle Landry, was appointed to administer the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. While those appointments were gazetted, the member for Cook specifically requested there be no swearing-in ceremony, no public events, no changes to official ministerial lists.
The reaction from the general public has been one of shock and outrage, but so, too, has been the reaction from fellow Liberal Party colleagues. Josh Frydenberg described these appointments as 'extreme overreach'. That's the reaction he gets from his Lodge flatmate. Another one of the former prime minister's flatmates, the member for Fadden, Stuart Robert, described the appointments as 'nuts'. Those are the character references he gets from his flatmates. The member for McPherson, Karen Andrews, said, 'To be honest, I feel the Australian people were betrayed.' She has asked the member for Cook to stand down from parliament as a result of this affair.
The member for Hinkler, Keith Pitt, detailed his reactions in Niki Savva's book Bulldozed. He said that after being told in June 2021 that the member for Cook had sworn himself in as resources minister to block the PEP-11 project, the member for Hinkler considered releasing a statement unilaterally approving the project. He also considered resigning. He ultimately did neither, but only to avoid plunging the government into further crisis.
Then there is Malcolm Turnbull, a former prime minister and the member for Cook's predecessor. He has described the multiple ministries scandal as 'sinister' and:
… one of the most appalling things I have ever heard in our Federal Government.
He went on to say that the most troubling thing about the saga was 'why the rest of the system went along with it. That's a thing I find most troubling.' Mr Turnbull is right.
This bill would mitigate a similar scenario in the future by ensuring that such decisions were made public. It is a bill that we hope the opposition will support, but that is despite the fact that the opposition leader has described the Bell inquiry as 'a witch hunt'. It is extraordinary that the Leader of the Opposition would downplay the Bell inquiry, an inquiry that was conducted by a former High Court Judge, an inquiry which went to a scandal that has rocked Australians and rocked many former Liberals. The member for Cook's actions in these secret ministries were just one of the many ways in which the Liberals damaged our democracy. We saw my own charities portfolio, harm minimisation and environmental charities, including the Grace Tame Foundation, unable to get deductible gift recipient status because the Morrison government disagreed with their political stance. We saw the gagging of organisations that wanted to speak out, from the community legal centres to overseas aid organisations to antipoverty groups. We saw the promise of a national integrity commission before the 2019 election, yet never delivered in the 2019 to 2022 term. We saw the sports rorts scandal, the land grants scandal, the stacking of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
We saw, under the former Liberal government, cuts to a range of important government programs, ranging from the ABC to the Audit Office itself. When the Audit Office discovered substantial improprieties, such as the fact that the former government had paid 10 times too much for land for the new Sydney airport, the former government's approach was to cut $14 million from the Audit Office. We saw contracts given out to entities that were manifestly unable to handle then. We saw money going to entities, such as the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, that were clearly not capable of managing the significant government contracts to which they were being allocated. We saw the ultimate resignation of the sports minister for the sports rorts scandal and the failure of the member for Cook to take responsibility for this failure in public administration.
Australians look back at the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments and shake their heads at the way in which these governments mismanaged public finances. During the pandemic we saw almost $20 billion of taxpayer money going to firms with rising revenue. The JobKeeper payment was necessary in order to save jobs, but we didn't save jobs by giving $20 billion to firms whose revenues were going up, rather than down. Firms from Harvey Norman to AP Eagers received taxpayer money under the JobKeeper program, a waste which ultimately amounted to some $2,000 for every Australian household. No-one in this parliament denies that JobKeeper was an important program, but what Australians were so frustrated by was the mismanagement of our public finances that saw $2,000 per Australian household go to firms whose revenues were going up, rather than down.
This is an important bill which deals with one of the shocking scandals that occurred during the Liberals' time in office. It is probably one of those scandals that will serve as an example in public administration classes for years to come. When Australian students are looking at some of the worst moments of public maladministration in Australian history, they will look back at the multiple ministries scandal as an example of one of the incidents that really characterise the way the member for Cook and his colleagues saw public administration.
In conclusion, these are weighty matters, but it did seem appropriate to add a little levity to the proceedings. So I asked ChatGPT if it could provide me with a moment of light-hearted humour to encapsulate the multiple ministries scandal. It suggested the following, which I will conclude with: 'Apparently Scott Morrison was secretly sworn in as minister for time travel. It's the only way he could've been in Hawaii and Canberra at the same time.'