Prime Minister of Australia

11/25/2022 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 11/24/2022 21:16

Press Conference Parliament House Canberra, ACT

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Yesterday our government was able to pass its National Anti-Corruption Commission legislation through the House of Representatives. It was an important day for integrity and accountability in politics. And so is today. We're shining sunlight on a shadow government that preferred to operate in darkness, a government that operated in a cult of secrecy and a culture of cover-up, which arrogantly dismissed scrutiny from the parliament and the public as a mere inconvenience. A government whose motto was 'nothing to see here'. The actions of the former Prime Minister were extraordinary. They were unprecedented and they were wrong. However, members of the former government and current Opposition enabled this culture of secrecy. The Leader of the Opposition initially dismissed these revelations and tried to make excuses for Scott Morrison's behaviour. In a new book 'Bulldozed', Nikki Savva has revealed: In a deliberate tactic, thought through but ill-judged, hours after Albanese revealed the extent of Morrison's deception, Dutton's Shadow Cabinet decided to downplay it. "The view was we were best not to talk about it," one frontbencher said. A Cabinet can't function where some members are complicit in secrecy and know what's going on at the same time as others don't. That is the characteristic of the Morrison Government. After nine years of chaos, a dysfunctional government has now been replaced by a dysfunctional Opposition. I want to thank Justice Virginia Bell, a former High Court judge, for the extraordinary work that her and her team have done with this report. I want to go through some of the inquiry, which we are releasing as soon as we have received it. Firstly, the reasons for the appointments. The explanation given for the first two appointments was in case the relevant minister became incapacitated in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Ms Bell has found that the appointments were unnecessary as an acting minister could have been appointed if needed, to quote the report, "in a matter of minutes". We all know that is the case. The latter three appointments - DISA, Home Affairs and Treasury - to quote the report, "had little connection to the pandemic" and were made because of Scott Morrison's concern that, again I quote the report, "an incumbent minister might exercise his or her statutory powers in a manner with which Mr Morrison didn't agree". The report made, deliberately, in order to overturn or override a minister's statutory powers under the law. Ms Bell found that these appointments were made so that Scott Morrison could exercise specific powers if he decided the relevant minister wasn't going to act, in his terms, in the national interest. The specific powers were the PEP-11 determination, Foreign Investment Review Board decisions, the power to stop or undo foreign powers acquiring interests in Australian assets, and the power to strip people of their citizenship. What we now know from this report today, and is revealed by the report, is that also sought advice at the same time on being appointed to administer the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, but ultimately decided not to proceed. Mr Morrison did not agree to meet with Virginia Bell and communicated only through his lawyers. That contradicts the very clear statement that Scott Morrison said when this inquiry was announced and I think will come as a surprise to people who took those comments at face value. Ms Bell described Scott Morrison's various accounts and explanations for his conduct, to quote the report, as "not easy to understand" and "difficult to reconcile" when she has examined the facts. Ms Bell confirms that none of the relevant ministers were informed at the time of the appointment. The Minister for Home Affairs and the Treasurer did not learn of the appointments until the revelations post the election. The Department Secretaries of Health, Finance, Home Affairs and Treasury were not informed, neither was the Chief Medical Officer. Ms Bell found there was no delineation of responsibilities. There was, therefore, a risk of conflict if different ministers wanted to exercise the same power inconsistently and we know for a fact that that was the case with PEP-11, for example. Ms Bell confirmed the Solicitor-General's view that the principles of responsible government were fundamentally undermined because Mr Morrison was not responsible to the Parliament and, through the Parliament, to the electors, for the departments that he was appointed to administer. The secrecy of the appointments, to quote the report, "undermine public confidence in government" and, to quote again, "once the appointments became known, the secrecy with which they had been surrounded was corrosive of trust in government". The public didn't know, to quote the report, "something it was entitled to know" and indeed, the Australian public is entitled to know this sort of information. Ms Bell and other senior public servants quoted in the report describe Scott Morrison's appointments in a range of ways. One of the clear quotes is: "it was an exorbitant grab by Morrison and Parliament couldn't hold him to account". It is described as bizarre, extremely irregular, unusual and constituting a serious deficiency in governance arrangements. When it comes to the government's response to this report, I will recommend to the meeting of Cabinet next week that our government implement all six recommendations of the Bell Inquiry to restore the Australian people's faith in our democratic institutions. I'm proud of my team and grateful to have so many talented and experienced ministers. We trust each other. We work together. We're operating as a mature, orderly government, and it contrasts with the chaos of the former government and, indeed, the chaos that we've seen over the scrambling of different positions in either trying to justify this or downplay it or dismiss it. Finally, can I thank Justice Bell and her team for their considerable efforts in producing this inquiry in such a timely manner, which can now be viewed, for all to see, at ministriesinquiry.gov.au.

JOURNALIST: Given this report and the scathing report from the Solicitor General, will you be moving to censure your predecessor?

PRIME MINISTER: What I'll do is I'll have proper processes. We'll take this report to the Cabinet on Monday. We'll examine it in full. We only have received the report today. We'll examine it and all of its implications in full and any decisions that we take, we'll discuss next week with my team. I lead a team that's collaborative and that engages people and we will make those decisions over the coming days.

JOURNALIST: What are the options, though, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: We will make those decisions over coming days. It is very clear that this is a scathing report which is an indictment on the Morrison Government and the culture of secrecy. And the question is, what was the culture that allowed this to thrive? How is it that Scott Morrison had the confidence to be able to appoint himself to six positions and consider even more appointments - at least one further appointment that was going to be made has been revealed by this report today - whilst some people, who were members of the Cabinet and the Ministry, knew about this about this information and not only didn't tell their colleagues but, most importantly, didn't reveal this to the public?

JOURNALIST: Do you think that Scott Morrison should resign?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think that a whole lot of people have got to look at their behaviour in this. Scott Morrison clearly felt he the confidence to be able to consider this, not that he was a part of a democratic government, not that he was bound by the conventions in which Parliament and government functions. But others were aware of this as well.

JOURNALIST: Can I pick up on something you alluded to there, it says in the report that Scott Morrison considered having himself in to administer Environment and Agriculture so he could administer the EPBC. I've only skimmed the report, I haven't seen whether it makes clear why he didn't proceed with that. And to follow up from Andrew, do you think Scott Morrison has misled the Parliament?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, quite clearly. He's misled the Parliament in every single day as he stood there as the Prime Minister without revealing, for example, when questions were asked about issues that were directly impacted, including the PEP-11 project. We asked questions about that in the Parliament. We were entitled to know that there were two people potentially responsible for that project. But most importantly, in misleading the Parliament he has misled the Australian people.

JOURNALIST: On the environment question?

PRIME MINISTER: I've received the report literally an hour ago. I haven't had the opportunity to real all of the detail. It outlines clearly the process of the potential appointment to administer the Environment and Water Department, and in it the documentation is there for all to see.

JOURNALIST: Virginia Bell didn't have Royal Commission-style powers to compel a witness like Scott Morrison to actually provide this evidence in person. Do you think that did hamper the report she's ultimately handed down?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's an outstanding report and it is comprehensive. I think that people will make their own judgement about how it is that an inquiry into transparency and accountability of the former Prime Minister Scott Morrison's actions saw him, in spite of his comments saying he would fully cooperate with the inquiry, choose not to give evidence but just talk through his legal team.

JOURNALIST: On the Industrial Relations laws, have you personally met with David Pocock recently?

PRIME MINISTER: I meet with people all the time, mate.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, when it comes to head next week, will you consider splitting the bill? Or is that off the table?

PRIME MINISTER: I meet with people all the time. We're determined to see our industrial relations legislation pass.

JOURNALIST: What are the implications for the public service in particular, providing frank, fearless and correct advice to the Prime Minister of the day? I'm looking at Phil Gaetjens here saying that it was appropriate safeguards, appropriate appointments but he report ultimately found the appointments were unnecessary?

PRIME MINISTER: Phil Gaetjens comes out of the report, if you read it, with questions to be asked about why is it that there weren't an appropriate handbrake put forward, particularly by the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

JOURNALIST: You haven't done a press conference in Canberra for some time and you've come out today to criticise the former government and your political opponents. In what way is that consistent of your message with changing the way politics are done?

PRIME MINISTER: Are you serious? That's a good question but I gave press conferences once a day or twice a day: last Saturday, last Friday, the Thursday, the Wednesday, Thursday, the Monday, the Sunday. Every day I gave at least one press conference with a fair few of the press gallery here present. And this week, I gave a full press conference in New South Wales around the floods. In terms of accountability, I assure you that the only office that I hold is the office of Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST: Do you think there was more dodgy behaviour happening during the pandemic from the former government? And when will you call a royal commission into the pandemic to uncover it all?

PRIME MINISTER: I have said that at some stage there will be a need for an inquiry into the pandemic and the handling of it. I have said that that would be at an appropriate time. We will take advice. We, of course, are still dealing with COVID-19 and we will make that decision at an appropriate time. Certainly at some stage during this term, I'm not talking about putting it off forever. It's what we will do.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned an Anti-Corruption Commission. Do you think this matter is something that would go before it?

PRIME MINISTER: We have made clear in the legislation that myself or any other politician won't make decisions about what goes before it. We want an independent commission that has the power to determine those issues themselves.

JOURNALIST: On Scott Morrison's refusal to meet with Justice Bell, now that the facts are all set out, does Scott Morrison, in your view, need to provide his account to the public or in parliament?

PRIME MINISTER: I know there's been some speculation about whether Scott Morrison owes an apology to Josh Frydenberg. That's of no interest to me. Where's the apology to the Australian people who were clearly misled and weren't told about the structure of their government? Their government, that's who we're accountable to.

JOURNALIST: Resources companies are nervous about market intervention in the energy markets there. Business groups are offside over the industrial relations changes and last night the government pulled a vote on legislation about fines in the financial services industry after banks complained about it. How are the current state of relations between the Labor government, and the business community? Are there tensions there?

PRIME MINISTER: I have terrific relations with the business community. I had a very successful evening on Monday night with the Australian Industry Group. Overseas I talked with the heads of the BCA, the Australian Industry Group, and ACCI who were all present at the B20 Summit that I addressed. This week I met again with the BCA and other business leaders, as I do regularly. I have a constructive relationship with them. My door is always open. That doesn't mean we always agree on everything, just as I don't always agree with people in the union movement or other organisations. But I lead a government that's always prepared to sit down and engage.

JOURNALIST: What is the implication of this report for the legality of the PEP-11 decision that Scott Morrison made personally? And will the Commonwealth Government be taking a position in Asset Energy's case about that decision?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm not about to make a legal comment here on a matter that's before the courts, as you would not expect me to do.

JOURNALIST: There are a number of things the former Prime Minister has said in response to the inquiry that Virginia Bell describes as "difficult to reconcile". In the context of his dealing with the inquiry, what do you make of that?

PRIME MINISTER: I find it extraordinary that there has been a lack of the self-awareness to give evidence before an inquiry such as this, which stands in stark contrast to what any reasonable person would have interpreted were Scott Morrison's intentions when the inquiry was announced.

JOURNALIST: Have you spoken personally with Scott Morrison since this came to light in August?

PRIME MINISTER: No.

JOURNALIST: Do you have full confidence in the Governor-General? Or do you think he was just put in such an awkward spot he couldn't get himself out of it?

PRIME MINISTER: I think the report makes it very clear that it doesn't raise criticism of the Governor-General because he was acting upon the advice of the elected government of the day.