Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022

"The Albanese government is about transparency. The introduction of this bill shows that this government is delivering on its promise to restore trust and integrity to federal politics."

Address to the House of Representatives, Bills, Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022 - Second Reading

Thursday 23 March 2023

I rise today to join with many others in speaking in favour of the Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022. This bill amends the Ministers of State Act 1952 to provide for greater transparency and accountability at the Commonwealth level of Australia's system of government by ensuring that the Australian people are able to access information in relation to the composition of the federal Executive Council, those who have been appointed to administer departments of state and the offices that ministers of state hold. It's difficult to believe that this was truly necessary. To me, as a long-term Canberran, this is still one of the most extraordinary parts of the record of the previous government.

The introduction of this legislation is reactive. It's being introduced because the member for Cook went behind the backs of his closest cabinet colleagues and was appointed to administer multiple portfolios during 2020 and 2021—the departments of health; finance; industry, science, energy and resources; Treasury; and home affairs—in addition to his appointment to administer the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. We now know, from revelations in the last couple of weeks, that there were further secret appointments. Such a lack of transparency is indicative of a lack of respect for the institutions of government, a lack of confidence in ministerial government and, in terms of the general public, a particular lack of respect for a public that has a right to know who is running their government and who administers particular portfolios. The Albanese Labor government was elected with a mandate to restore public trust in the institutions of government and in government itself. The cornerstone of this is the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. That legislation was passed in the parliament late last year. The Ministers of State Amendment Bill 2022 follows the same core principles that underpin the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

When this power grab was discovered, it was once again up to Labor to clean up another mess from the former government. I will take this opportunity to remind the House how this government responded. On 26 August last year, the Prime Minister and Attorney-General announced the establishment of an inquiry into the appointment of the former Prime Minister to administer multiple departments. That inquiry was led by the former High Court Justice Hon. Virginia Bell KC, with a final report being provided to the government on 25 November last year. Those opposite labelled it a political witch-hunt. What a shock! Well, we found a witch. This inquiry was not about politics. It was about working out how the former Prime Minister was able to be sworn into five key portfolios, without having to notify the Australian public or even his own cabinet. Our parliamentary democracy relies on basic government transparency as a critical means to provide checks and balances. As the Solicitor-General made clear:

… 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.

Throughout the whole of the previous parliament, I well recall the number of questions which were put to the Prime Minister but were then referred off to ministers despite the fact that, we now know, he actually had the capacity to respond directly to those questions himself, because he had that ministerial responsibility provided to him in secret.

This bill demonstrates the government's readiness to act promptly to restore the Australian people's confidence in our federal system of government and to rebuild integrity in public sector institutions, processes and officials. The measures in the bill will restore integrity and transparency to the process of appointing elected officials to high office and ensure we have a system of government where there are checks and balances. Never again will one person be able to garner powers without adequate and warranted accountability to the Australian people and the Australian parliament. I will always advocate for and encourage greater accountability in government. I represent a large population of current and former public servants who have strict guidelines that they have to follow, and they expect their ministers to do the same. The member for Cook's inability to hold himself to the highest level of accountability, which his former office expected of him, is deeply concerning.

When speaking with journalist Niki Savva, the former member for Kooyong said:

… I don't think there was any reason for Scott to take on the additional Treasury portfolio. The fact he did take it, and it was not made transparent to me and others, was wrong and profoundly disappointing.

It was extreme overreach.

When his then deputy declares it as 'extreme overreach', what does it say about the judgement and motives of the former Prime Minister?

The Albanese government is about transparency. The introduction of this bill shows that this government is delivering on its promise to restore trust and integrity to federal politics. The measures in this bill will go some way to provide greater integrity and transparency around the process of appointing elected officials to high office and especially to ensure we have a system of government where one person cannot again, as I said earlier, garner powers without adequate and warranted accountability to the Australian people and the parliament.

The legislation will require the Official Secretary to the Governor-General to publish a notifiable instrument, registered on the Federal Register of Legislation, as soon as reasonably practicable, that the Governor-General has chosen, summoned and sworn in an executive councillor to the Federal Executive Council; appointed an officer to administer a department of state; or directed a minister of state to hold an office. It will also require such a notification on the revocation of any of these positions. The notifiable instrument will include the name of the person; the department of state, where appropriate; and the date on which they were sworn, appointed or directed. In the case of revocation, the notifiable instrument is to include the name of the person, the name of the former office, and the date that such membership, appointment or direction was revoked.

Those opposite wouldn't know what accountability or integrity was, and the Australian people shared that view last May. That's why this government has continued to roll out multiple pieces of legislation to restore integrity and transparency in the federal government. That's why the Albanese government introduced long-overdue reforms to the Public Interest Disclosure Act, which will put Australia on the path to a best-practice whistleblowing framework for the public sector. In my working life before coming here, I represented public sector workers across a whole range of Commonwealth agencies. I've had the great privilege of working with people with great integrity, who at times have needed to shine a light on public sector maladministration or corruption. The need for greater whistleblower protection and the ongoing need for integrity reform is clear to me, and it's a privilege to speak on this bill as part of the greater moves to address these issues. There is still work to be done, but already the reforms in the first year of the Albanese government have led to an improvement in our global corruption perceptions ranking, as the latest Transparency International data shows.

The Albanese government's work in restoring accountability does not stop with greater whistleblower protection or with the reforms in this bill. The passing of our National Anti-Corruption Commission legislation last year was a great step in increasing government transparency and integrity. I'd like to take this opportunity to remind those opposite what the National Anti-Corruption Commission looks like. The commission will operate independently of government, with a full suite of powers similar to those of a royal commission. It will have discretion to commence inquiries into serious or systemic corruption on its own initiative or in response to referrals, including from whistleblowers, who will have strong protections, and there will be exemptions for journalists to protect the identity of sources. It will have the discretion to undertake investigations, of both criminal and non-criminal conduct, and to refer matters to another agency or to take no action. It will be able to refer findings that could constitute criminal conduct to the Australian Federal Police or the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. It will have the power to investigate allegations of serious or systemic corruption that occurred before or after its establishment. After what we've seen over recent years, and the diminishing public trust in government as a consequence, this is extremely important. We are establishing a National Anti-Corruption Commission with real power and authority. Importantly, our approach consistently meets the path of cooperation and collaboration so that all Australians are heard. The establishment of a National Anti-Corruption Commission begins the important work of restoring the faith of the Australian people in their parliament and government.

The Albanese government will continue to lead on matters of national integrity and transparency. This government understands that everyday Australians are losing trust in their political system and that we need a comprehensive approach that will go further than maintaining the status quo but ensures the federal government operates with the highest levels of integrity and transparency. This is not some sort of victory for the government. It's effectively a key to ensure that Australians can have faith and trust in any of their governments. I thank the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General for the hard work they have done in this space in restoring confidence and trust to government in relation to the NACC, enhanced whistleblower protections and now with this legislation to ensure that the Australian people are notified when there has been a change in ministerial arrangements. I would encourage all members in this place to support this bill to take one further step to restore public confidence in government.

As I said earlier, as a Canberran it baffles me that this bill was ever necessary. If there's one part of the day that nearly all Australians are familiar with, and often judge this place on, it is question time. That is the most visible part of the day, and it is a part of the day when there is an expectation that ministers who have responsibility for portfolios will respond to questions that come from electorates all around the country, whether they be represented by the opposition or by the government. It's still extraordinary to me that, for a significant period of time, without any explanation, the Australian people were hoodwinked. Effectively, when questions were asked of the Prime Minister, where the Prime Minister had assumed responsibility for a number of portfolios, those questions were not answered. That responsibility was not acknowledged. It was, certainly, an extraordinary act of bad faith for members of the government of the day, an extraordinary lack of both trust and confidence in their capacity to do the jobs for which they were appointed. It was an extraordinary breach of faith and confidence with the Australian people, something that we should ensure never happens again in this place.

When Australians all around the country are watching or listening to question time or to other parts of the day when legislation is introduced, they should have a firm understanding of who is responsible and who is accountable for the work that goes on in this place.