Press Conference - Parliament House, Canberra

23 Aug 2022
Prime Minister
Scott Morrison’s secret ministerial appointments; Torres Strait Islander communities; Voice to Parliament; John Farnham’s battle with cancer

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Thanks everyone for joining us. Yesterday I received the Solicitor-General's opinion on the matter and validity of the appointment of former Prime Minister Morrison to multiple portfolios over 2020 and 2021. Today, given the highly extraordinary and unprecedented nature of this issue, I am releasing that opinion as a one-off. It should not be considered to be a precedent. But, very clearly, when we are talking about an issue of transparency and secrecy and accountability, it was important that that opinion be released, which was released to you in time for you to consider it prior to this press conference, I note as well. So it is released publicly for people watching at home on the website.

In summary, the Solicitor-General has concluded that Mr Morrison was validly appointed by the Governor-General to administer the various departments to which he was appointed. But it particularly considered the issue of the Department of Resources because quite clearly we know that a decision was made on the PEP-11 gas project there. But the implications are there for the other appointments as well. The advice is, I think, a very clear criticism and critique of the implications that are there for our democratic system of government of what happened under the former Morrison Government.

Clause 29 goes to the fact that, according to the Solicitor-General, whether the notification was consistent with the principle of Responsible Government that is inherent in chapter two of the Constitution. The constitutional implications of this, according to paragraph 33, go back to 1926. So it is not like they are new, they are well-known. Paragraph 35 goes to the potential breach of House of Representatives practice which is there and it quotes House of Reps practice. Paragraph 42 goes to the changes that were made to the form when ministerial lists are tabled in the Parliament, and of course can't draw a conclusion as to why that occurred or who made those changes, but that is another issue that raises further questions. Paragraph 44 and 46 go to the principle of Responsible Government being, to quote the Solicitor-General, "fundamentally undermined" by the former Government's actions. Paragraph 47 goes to the problems that were created with multiple ministers being sworn in to a single department, without the knowledge of either existing ministers who were responsible, or the departmental secretaries and the problems that that potentially would have created or did create.

The Solicitor-General obviously was not in a position to go through all of the history of this because evidence obviously wasn't taken by the Solicitor-General, this was just an opinion based upon the known details which are out there very publicly. Not dealt with in this opinion is also a range of issues. I will name one, which has been raised by Christine Holgate yesterday. The fact that Mr Morrison was also responsible for administering departments that were shareholder responsibilities. In Finance, for example, is something that Christine Holgate has raised, and I think raised legitimately, the questions that she has around that. There are of course a range of other implications there as well. I distributed the advice to the Cabinet this morning and we gave consideration as to a way to proceed. The Cabinet has determined that there will be a need for a further inquiry, and we will give consideration at a future meeting into the nature of that inquiry. There are a range of different options available to the Government, but it is agreed that it needs to be not a political inquiry, but an inquiry with an eminent person with a legal background to consider all of the implications. In the Solicitor-General's advice it goes through some of the mechanisms that could be required. And I have directed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to work with the Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General to adopt a practice of publishing in the Commonwealth Gazette future appointments of ministers to administer departments. Such a practical thing that needs to happen that doesn't need any further advice and something that we will do. We will also give further consideration to whether any further immediate changes are required. So we will make a future announcement about an inquiry, I am giving notice today that that inquiry will take place. This isn't something that can be just dismissed. This is something that goes to our very system of government which the Solicitor-General's advice makes clear.

JOURNALIST: With that gazetting of changes in the ministerial setup, is that going to be required upon this government and future governments to basically remove the secrecy of any changes that might be made?

PRIME MINISTER: I have directed my Department to work with the office of the Governor-General to achieve that outcome. But I think one of the things we will need to consider is any future legislative change to make sure that that is enshrined. To make sure that it is not dependent upon the goodwill of the Government of the day. I think it is fair to say that what we are dealing with here wasn't envisaged. I don't think anyone in this room, certainly no-one in the current Government, sat around and said ‘I wonder if Scott Morrison has been put in charge of the Department of Industry and Science, the Department of Home Affairs, or whether he has made himself Treasurer’. Given that it wasn't considered by the former Treasurer, I don't think that is surprising. But clearly, there is a need to ensure there is absolute confidence in our political system and our political processes going forward. We have a Westminster System of parliamentary democracy that relies upon conventions, it relies upon accountability and checks and balances in the system. And those checks and balances have been thrown out by the former government.

JOURNALIST: Is there any possibility of wrapping this inquiry into a wider inquiry about decision-making during the pandemic, or will this be standalone? And secondly, did you send this opinion to Mr Morrison?

PRIME MINISTER: With regards to sending the opinion, it has been sent to all Australians now. It is up on the website. The opinion was received by myself, the Attorney-General got to see the opinion, as did the Governor-General. It was given to the Cabinet first, which is entirely appropriate, and then distributed to the Australian people which is also entirely appropriate. On the first, this will be a stand-alone issue. I have said this in Opposition, at some point in time when we are confident that we are on the other side of the pandemic, there will be a need to examine what went right, what went wrong, how issues could be improved in the future and we will give consideration to that at an appropriate later time. But I want this to be quite an expeditious inquiry. I don't want this to drag on. I want to get conclusions and then act on them.

JOURNALIST: The Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Marles, this morning said there should be severe consequences for Scott Morrison for what we now know was a breach of the principles of Responsible Government. What should those consequences be?

PRIME MINISTER: Well various people have expressed views. Karen Andrews has said that Mr Morrison should resign from Parliament. That in my view is a matter for Mr Morrison and his colleagues. Quite clearly, I think that Mr Morrison's behaviour was extraordinary. It undermined our parliamentary democracy and he does need to be held accountable for it.

JOURNALIST: A couple of things. In the sense of the Parliament in the same way you’re looking at the changes to the gazetting, would you be looking to codify that ministry list because of all those asterisks that none of us knew existed? Two, will the Government be sponsoring any action in the Parliament to censure Mr Morrison? And could just clarify for us, in terms of the inquiry, are you talking about an inquiry in terms of these processes or are you also still examining the potential legal issues like Christine Holgate and the extent to which there may have been, not necessarily decisions taken by Mr Morrison, but issues that may have been affected by his presence in those portfolios?

PRIME MINISTER: The inquiry will need to examine what happened and how it happened. It will also need to examine what the implications are for what occurred over whether there are any legal issues that are raised, which is why we would be looking at someone with a serious legal background to undertake the inquiry. And thirdly, it needs to look at future reform, how we can ensure that this doesn't happen in the future. So making positive future recommendations as well, which I can't envisage that the Government would not act on all of the recommendations which are made.

JOURNALIST: In relation to the inquiry, what powers if any will it have to compel witnesses? Will it be able to call Scott Morrison? Will it be able to find out who knew what and when in his office and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet? Do you have any concerns that any serving people in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet were aware of this situation? And just following up on Laura’s question, you didn't actually answer whether you would be supporting the censure motion in Parliament as to whether or not the former Prime Minister mislead Parliament?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I haven’t seen any motions moved in the Parliament yet. So we will make those decisions when the Parliament sits. I don't intend to engage in hypotheticals there, we haven’t given consideration to that yet. My consideration has been to get to the bottom of what is happening. The inquiry needs to do that, it needs to have the power to do that, and that is why we will give proper, considered thought into what the structure of an inquiry should be based upon proper advice that I have asked the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to give me.

JOURNALIST: Will it be private or public hearings?

PRIME MINISTER: Well that is the consideration we will give. You won't have to wait that long for that decision to be made, but we will get proper advice. I want to run a government that gets proper advice and makes decisions based upon it. And in contrast to what we have seen of the shambles and chaos of the government that we have succeeded.

JOURNALIST: Have any concerns about actions in the shareholder ministries or the other ministries been raised specifically other than the PEP-11 case with you that could have been compromised?

PRIME MINISTER: I have just given you the Christine Holgate example, but there are other potentials as well. The former Prime Minister for example was the Health Minister and the Industry Minister at a time when we were considering mRNA vaccine manufacture in Australia. If you think about it, the more thought it’s given, which is why we are taking our time, we have only received the advice less than 24 hours ago, or 24 hours ago. So we will give proper consideration to the nature of what an inquiry should be.

JOURNALIST: In paragraph 51 it talks about the gazetting or the Gazettal as it says. It reads, ‘it appears that the Gazettal of appointments under section 65 occurs at the instigation of the Governor-General.’ And then it says, if that is correct and if the Governor-General were to agree to introduce such a practice then he could avoid or insulate himself from the wishes of the Prime Minister. Are you disappointed that in this instance it wasn’t gazetted as clearly the Governor-General could have done and practice that was followed with the previous Governors-General?

PRIME MINISTER: I have indicated that I have directed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to work with the Official Secretary to the Governor-General to ensure that that occurs in the future.

JOURNALIST: And has been done in the past, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Indeed. The report makes clear though that the Governor-General acted upon the advice of the government of the day. And also the Governor-General himself has made clear in a public statement his views at the time, which were that he was, I forget that the exact term that he used, but along the lines of there was no reason he would think it would not be made public.

JOURNALIST: Just picking up from what you have just said though. There might have been no reason in 2020, but 12 months later, do you not think the Governor-General might have had reason to believe that those appointments were not going to be made public? And given what Andrew has just said, that he always had the ability beyond the advice of the PM to pursue those appointments being gazetted. Are you disappointed that that was not pursued given it remained an option despite the PM's advice?

PRIME MINISTER: The Governor-General has made clear the decision-making processes that he went through and the advice makes clear that the Governor-General acted upon the advice of the government of the day.

JOURNALIST: Following on from Sam’s question about who knew what in PM&C, you talk about bringing back confidence to the political system, what about the public service, how do they come off here, do you flag any changes to the public service?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, in terms of accountability here, I was asked a previous question, was there anyone in Prime Minister and Cabinet that was aware, that was part of a multiple question, and when you ask multiple questions sometimes not all the elements get answered. There clearly were some people in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet who were aware.

JOURNALIST: You are standing in front of the Torres Strait Islander flag and you just visited the region. Today, a large group of leaders from across the Islands have released the “Masig Statement”, which is their version of the Statement from the Heart. In it they say by virtue of sovereign right we have the right to freely determine our political status and freely pursue our own social and cultural development. They are essentially asking for the right to break away as a State or Territory, if they so choose. What is your message back to them?

PRIME MINISTER: That they are very much a valued part of our nation of Australia. I met with the Torres Strait Regional Authority, which is made up of the representatives elected of all of the Islands just last week, as well as people from the Northern Peninsula as well, where there is a large number of Torres Strait Islander peoples. When I got back from the Torres Strait Islander representatives, unanimously, was their support for a Voice to Parliament and their support for as part of that the recognition in the Australian Constitution, our national birth certificate, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

JOURNALIST: Pulling up in your answer to Clare’s question. In terms of the future inquiry, will that examine the role of the Governor-General in this particular scenario, or do you feel he should be exempted?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the Governor-General's role has been examined here and the Governor-General has made a very clear statement as, from his perspective, he operated according to, taking the advice of the government of the day, which is consistent with the responsibility of the Governor-General.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, on your considerations of a broader inquiry, you said that your Government would take advice. The Senate Committee on COVID-19 already recommended the Government establish a Royal Commission into the national response to COVID-19, so there’s some advice. What other advice would the Government consider, what other advice is the Government waiting for to call a Royal Commission?

PRIME MINISTER: To be very clear, there are two issues. One is the advice about this issue of Scott Morrison being appointed to multiple ministries. We are awaiting advice on that. The issue of the COVID response is something that we are still dealing with, the pandemic. We have just dealt with a major spike in terms of the wave and we are dealing with that. What I have said is, at an appropriate time, which the Government will consider, we will look at what form of examination is required. But our priority in terms of the health response has been improving the vaccination rates, the additional funding that we have given to hospital services, dealing with the consequences of that bump in wave, including, of course, the additional support that we gave for paid pandemic leave as well. That has been our priority of the Commonwealth and the States. It must be said we have acted as one. And we will be meeting again, the Commonwealth and the States, at a National Cabinet meeting next Wednesday. The focus of that will be the Jobs and Skills Summit, but we will also be giving consideration to other issues as well.

JOURNALIST: Just on the Jobs and Skills Summit, the big bank CEOs haven’t been invited, they are among the biggest employers in the nation. Can you explain the thinking behind that?

PRIME MINISTER: The Australian Banking Association, of course, the peak organisation has been invited and will be participating. The Treasurer has met with the CEOs of all of the four banks. The other thing that we've had is that this summit isn't just about the two days that are held here in Parliament House next Thursday and Friday. It’s also the more than 60 summits and hearings that we have held right around the country, some of which are being held today, some of which have been held in regions, they have been held with section groups. So, for example, I attended last week, here in Parliament House the meeting convened by Bill Shorten about disabilities and people with disabilities and their employment and skills and opportunities to get into work and to advance. So there is a range of forums and opportunities for people to participate and, of course, the financial sector will have a number of representatives. The truth is, we could have a thousand people here in Parliament House and those thousand people would all have merit. There are some limits so we have tried to make sure it is a representative group.

JOURNALIST: Are you satisfied with the way that the Governor-General conducted himself in this situation, despite questions around transparency? And when it comes to that inquiry that you've flagged, would it investigate whether or not the Governor-General instructed Scott Morrison to make his portfolios public?

PRIME MINISTER: The issue there is that the Governor-General in the discussions that he has with the Prime Minister of the day, is not obligated, normally they would be discussions that would be kept private. That is the protocol which is there. It's a matter for the Governor-General, or for Mr Morrison, whether there is any change to that. I'm not privy to that information that the Governor-General has made that point clear in the statements that he has made when he has also said that there was no reason why he would think it would not be made public. Now, I think there are implications in that statement by the Governor-General.

JOURNALIST: On paragraph 42, I’ve put questions to Scott Morrison's office to see if they can get an explanation as to why that change was made, I have not heard anything back. Have you had any advice from your Department or your office as to why that extra paragraph is inserted? And secondly to clarify with Laura and Kieran’s question, will the instruction be that all appointments that allow someone to administer a portfolio be gazetted?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes to the latter. And to your first question, no is the answer. We are not aware of how that occurred, why that occurred, where the instruction occurred. Normally that list would be put together by, I know with these things, by the Leader of the House's Office is what was done previously, in consultation with the Prime Minister's Office. But that is one of the questions, because there was a change and the change was made around this time, why it was made. It clearly had implications, as the Solicitor-General points out, but they weren’t picked up at the time by anybody. It's one of the reasons why we need more information and there’s a need for more transparency about how this occurred.

JOURNALIST: You have had the advice from your Department now, and now from the Solicitor-General, what questions do you still personally have here? What are the big things that are burning that you need to find out through this inquiry?

PRIME MINISTER: Why this occurred, how this occurred, who knew about it occurring? What the implications are for our parliamentary system? Are there any legal implications behind decisions that were made? How can we avoid this happening again? There are clearly a whole raft of questions which have been raised, including with the Solicitor-General's advice. The Solicitor-General has produced this advice based upon the information which is out there, but, of course, he hasn't been able to ask questions about why this occurred or how it occurred. He simply examined what the circumstances are of what is before him.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned this problem of multiple breakdowns across the system in terms of transparency. What are your concerns about what public servants know of the Harradine List, the requirement to give the Senate a list of new files created every six months? That might have been the kind of place where this sort of arrangement might have appeared, because secretaries of PM&C and also the Governor-General's office, would have generated new files that might have given the people a clue that this guy had multiple jobs.

PRIME MINISTER: What we know is that there was no transparency here at all and that, according to Mr Morrison's own press conference last week, that I think from my perspective raised more questions than provided answers, he himself said that the interviews that he gave to the journalist from the Australian who are writing a book about Mr Morrison's time responding to the pandemic, that these were contemporaneous interviews that were given at the time, that gave out the information about what were the first two of Health and Finance. We know that at that time there was no transparency, but we know that it was then added to as well, not just with the Industry, Science, Resources, and Energy portfolio, which is a substantial one, we know that within that portfolio there was a decision on PEP-11. And we also know that, in a way that I think is, well, I know, is not normal practice, that the Prime Minister was appointed as the final decision-maker for grants in excess of $800 million for a manufacturing fund. Now, that is also, in my view, something that is an issue for accountability. If you have a department that is looking at the processes and applications based upon merit in the industry portfolio, we're talk about taxpayer funds here. We are also talking about taxpayer funds for private organisations that are for profit. So the implications of making political decisions in that area go to competition policy, go to not just who is getting the grants, but who is not getting the grants as well. And some of those decisions were advised through press release during the election campaign, but weren’t contracted. So what are the implications behind the fact that Mr Morrison at the time wasn't just Prime Minister but was also Industry Minister? There are a range of issues that are raised and then, of course, we have the decision to make Mr Morrison also responsible as Treasurer and as Home Affairs Minister. As Home Affairs Minister you also have some pretty serious responsibilities and, indeed, power to make decisions as a Minister. And one of the things about the Westminster System of government and the Cabinet system that is the basis of our parliamentary democracy, is accountability that ministers have specific powers conferred on them to make decisions that they have the capacity, because of that concentration and their responsibility, they should be experts in and they should do it on its merits. Whether that be Immigration Ministers making decisions about whether someone comes into the country or not, as occurred during the Novak Djokovic issue, which also, of course, I'm not sure what the timetable there was with regard to Mr Morrison as well, because there’s another dual issue. Or whether you are the Environment Minister or the Resources Minister, has to do things on their merits. Now, we know that this is the subject of legal conjecture over the PEP-11 issue, but potentially there are other implications as well, and that goes to the use of taxpayer funds as well and the potential implications to taxpayers of the structures that were established.

JOURNALIST:  Scott Morrison has apologised to those ministers whose duties were duplicated. Does he owe anyone else an apology?

PRIME MINISTER: Scott Morrison owes the Australian people an apology for undermining our parliamentary democracy system of government that we have, something that can't be taken for granted. And it's one thing to see this as an issue between him and Josh Frydenberg or other individuals, he misses the point here completely. This is about the Australian people. That's who, at the end of the day, we are accountable for.

JOURNALIST: On another subject, what is your message to John Farnham and his family today as he undergoes cancer surgery?

PRIME MINISTER: All Australians love John Farnham, and we wish him all the best for him and his family at this time. It is difficult news for people to have received this morning. John Farnham has been and continues to be a great Australian. He has not only provided entertainment for Australians over many decades, he also has been a contributor to the nation. When people need to raise money for bushfire recovery, or for anything else, John Farnham is always there and Australians' thoughts are with John Farnham and his family today. Thanks very much.