Radio Interview - ABC RN Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas

16 Aug 2022
Prime Minister
Scott Morrison’s secret appointment to additional portfolios; National Anti-Corruption Commission; beef exports to China; Australia’s relationship with China; Taiwan; Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan; John Barilaro’s appointment to a New York trade role;

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Cabinet will meet today as the fallout deepens from revelations that the former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, had himself sworn into multiple portfolios during the pandemic. It's been confirmed that Scott Morrison secretly held the Health, Finance and Resources portfolios, overruling then Minister Keith Pitt to knock back a controversial gas exploration licence last year. The news has taken many of his colleagues, including former senior Cabinet ministers, even the new Opposition Leader by surprise. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has ordered his Department to look into this. And he joins us this morning. Prime Minister, welcome.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER:  Good to be with you, Patricia.

KARVELAS: Do you still have trust in the Governor General? Do you believe he acted in the best interests of Australians?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the Governor General acted on the advice of the Government of the day. Let's be very clear here. It is Scott Morrison that initiated this extraordinary and unprecedented action of having himself sworn into a range of portfolios and overriding people, in Keith Pitt's case, who everyone publicly, all Australians, would have thought was the Minister at the time. There are checks and balances in our system. And they've been deliberately undermined by the former Prime Minister who acted in such an unprecedented and extraordinary way. I used to say that Scott Morrison had just two jobs as Prime Minister and he botched them both. Turns out I was wrong about there being just two jobs.

KARVELAS: But do you have, I'll ask again, confidence in the Governor General that he executed his role as he should have?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the Governor General's job is to take the advice of the Government of the day. He did that. He's issued a statement. And I don't intend to pass judgement there. I think that the blame for this lands fairly and squarely with the former Government, not just the Prime Minister, clearly other Ministers knew that this was going on. They chose not to make it public. And the Australian people are entitled to much better. They're entitled to a government that is orderly, a government that says who is in government. What we have here is that Scott Morrison was running a shadow Government and not telling the Australian people what was occurring.

KARVELAS: And if you're just tuning in, this RN Breakfast. The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, is my guest. Have you been briefed about how many other portfolios the Prime Minister swore himself into?

PRIME MINISTER: I received a preliminary briefing yesterday afternoon when I returned back to Canberra, where I was yesterday morning. I had some early discussions yesterday morning in Canberra. I travelled to Melbourne and then returned to Canberra yesterday afternoon. I was briefed by the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Some preliminary discussions. And I'll be briefed by him this morning. And I'll be having more to say after I received that briefing.

KARVELAS: Can you just give me an indication, though. We know its Finance, we know its Resources, we know its Health. Is there more?

PRIME MINISTER: There may well be more. But I'll have more to say about that when I'm properly briefed. Australians are entitled to a government that acts orderly, that is mature in the way that it deals with issues and that is the sort of Government that I want to lead and that I am leading. And we're showing the way on. Not the circus, clearly, that was operating in the dark in the shadows from the Government that was led by Scott Morrison and included people including Peter Dutton and Barnaby Joyce and the rest of the crew.

KARVELAS: What have you uncovered about how this was done? Have you found the instrument the Governor General signed?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm not searching through documents, obviously. Yesterday, I was in Victoria for an important event with Premier Andrews relating to Moderna, establishing a manufacturing facility and research activity there at Monash University. But this morning, I expect to receive more detail about how this occurred. Because this is totally contrary to our Westminster system. When I first read the revelations which were put out there, one would assume, by people friendly to Scott Morrison, on the weekend, the initial revelations, I was somewhat shocked by them. And then, of course, on Sunday night, there were further revelations about the Resources portfolio. That has real implications. What we know is that under our system of government, ministers, such as the Environment Minister is responsible for environmental approvals, Immigration Minister for migration. We saw that in the Djokovic case, for example. The Resources Minister for assessing projects and making decisions based upon proper advice and proper consideration. Those ministers make those decisions by themselves. They're not referred to the Cabinet. But they're accountable for them. What we have here is a deliberate strategy pursued by the former Prime Minister, and obviously with the knowledge at whatever time, at various times, Keith was aware that Mr Morrison had been sworn in as the Resources Minister and have taken over that portfolio as well, that has real implications for our system of government. What if there was contrary views, which in this case, it would appear that there were about a decision that needed to be made? And you had two people who were responsible for it, rather than one. That breaks down our whole Westminster system, let alone the fact that in Parliament, we table the list of ministers and the list of shadow ministers.

KARVELAS: But Prime Minister, I just have some specific questions about what the implications could be. How many decisions have you been advised about, maybe potentially subject to legal challenge, as a result of these arrangements?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm awaiting and I'm not going to pre-empt and make guess work. What my Government will be focused on is facts. And I'll receive that briefing this morning. It may well be that it takes some time to get to the bottom of this, after all we have had revelations come out just in the last 72 hours. We will put out information publicly and transparently as it becomes available.

KARVELAS: And Prime Minister, did Scott Morrison receive extra pay as a result of holding these additional portfolios as far as you know?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm not aware of that. But I doubt whether that would be the case. It's the case that if someone is a Cabinet Minister and holds additional portfolios, which from time to time will occur, if someone's on leave, then they don't receive additional pay with the exception if someone's Acting Prime Minister, there is an additional pay to be made. But of course, Scott Morrison was the Prime Minister. But what we know now is that he was a bit more than the Prime Minister as well.

KARVELAS: He seemed rather busy. That's right. Is there a loophole you will seek to close after this episode, given this happened and it looks seemingly like it was potentially legal, and yet none of us knew?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think that is what we need to examine. What we need here is a pursuit of the truth and a transparency about what happened, when and why. But then, also, we will need some recommendations, potentially, of how this could be avoided in the future. Because this really does undermine our democracy. Our democracy is precious. And it relies upon on accountability. And this cowboy action, which is, I said yesterday, I likened it to some tin pot, anti-democratic regime that we would look at, and frankly ridicule if this happened somewhere else. Well, this is Australia that this occurred.

KARVELAS: We're going to call him back. Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, is my guest this morning. I will not subject you to a phone line which means you cannot hear the Prime Minister properly. We're going to call him back. You're listening to ABC RN Breakfast. Patricia Karvelas with you. And I am speaking with the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, about what he's ascertained in relation to the former Prime Minister. I think we've got you back, Prime Minister.


KARVELAS: Given what we're seeing happened with particularly the Health portfolio, does this justify your view a Royal Commission into the handling of the pandemic?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm not going to pre-empt that. I've always said that there would need to be an examination after the pandemic about the handling of it. That would just be normal course of events. But we haven't made a decision about that. Of course, we know the pandemic is still having an impact. Fortunately, at the moment, the number of cases and the impact of it is in the decline of the latest wave. But I have said previously from Opposition, I said that it would be a normal course of events that a Government would consider what was necessary, what lessons were learned. We know one of the lessons is we need to be more self-reliant.

KARVELAS: And Prime Minister, one of the things that you're currently doing is devising, obviously, this integrity commission. Would what we're seeing right now come before an integrity commission?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm uncertain there. What is clear, though, is that we have the capacity and need to get to the bottom of this. Australians are entitled to know what was going on in the Government that was elected and acting over the last few years.

KARVELAS: In a statement, the Governor General, David Hurley, says it is not uncommon for ministers to be appointed to administer departments other than their portfolio responsibility. And he says this was not all above board. You've read the Governor General's statements. Do you agree with what the Governor General says?

PRIME MINISTER: I think this is quite extraordinary. And I believe that Australians know that this is not business as usual.

KARVELAS: Does it concern you, though, that the Governor General thinks it's, in the statement that I read, suggests that it is?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think people will make their own judgement. I know that the Governor General's view is that he acted upon advice of the Government of the day, and that it was also the decision of the Government of the day for whether this should be made public or not. But I can't think of, not only can I not think of a precedent for something like this occurring, I can't even imagine what mindset enables someone to even think of acting in this way.

KARVELAS: The Governor General could have ensured this was made public by having his office gazette it. He didn't. Should he have?

PRIME MINISTER: The Governor General, it's a matter for him. He acted upon advice. And I respect the fact that he acted upon advice of the Government of the day and I respect the Office of the Governor General.

KARVELAS: So, you don't have any other questions for the Governor General? you feel like that part of this equation is settled?

PRIME MINISTER: The questions I have are for the former Government and how this occurred. I think that's what Australians will have woken up to this morning is some shock that the person they thought was the Health Minister wasn't necessarily just the Health Minister, the Finance Minister, the Resources Minister, and potentially other activities as well. And the fact that has drawn into question some of those decisions, I just find quite extraordinary. Nothing about the last Government was real, not even the Government itself.

KARVELAS: Have you sought advice on the validity of Scott Morrison's rejection of that gas exploration licence off the coast of New South Wales?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm seeking advice from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet about the range of issues. That's a matter that's before the courts. So, I do not intend to comment on that detail.

KARVELAS: Scott Morrison told Sky News he doesn't watch day-to-day politics anymore. He didn't answer questions. Should he be compelled to answer?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, he's a Member of zParliament. The idea that the Member for Cook says he doesn't engage in day-to-day politics, I find quite an extraordinary dismissal by a former Prime Minister, who has, in his own actions, dismissed the very conventions and principles upon which the Westminster system of democracy that we have in Australia is based.

KARVELAS: Just on some other issues. Prime Minister, before I let you go, how much weight are you giving to concerns from beef exporters that China could suspend all imports from Australia and New Zealand over Foot and Mouth Disease concerns?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we are, of course, acting on Foot and Mouth Disease. We've acted very strongly. There's no indication that it has not been successful here in Australia. We're working with industries. And what I would say is what I've said publicly about the range of sanctions, effectively, that have been put in place against Australian businesses is that they contrary to both the spirit and the detail that is there in the trade agreements that we have with China. And these sanctions should be withdrawn.

KARVELAS: Should Australia brace for some form of retaliation by China over our support for Taiwan?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there's no justification for the actions that China has taken against Australian economic interests. I have a very clear view. And I've said it that we should have good relations and cooperate with China wherever we can. But we will stand up for Australia interests where we must.

KARVELAS: Have the visits to Taiwan by US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and other US politicians made things more dangerous in our region, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: They are a matter for the United States.

KARVELAS: An internal review into John Barilaro's controversial appointment to a lucrative trade role in New York is expected to be released today. Does what we've seen in New South Wales demonstrate that the public has no appetite, Prime Minister, for politicians to be appointed to these plum roles?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what it indicates here is that there were legitimate and real concerns about the nature of this appointment, about the fact that John Barilaro was the Deputy Premier and was in charge of various processes that have have come out publicly, and that the process wasn't transparent. There are legitimate appointments of former politicians. One of those is Arthur Sinodinos as the Ambassador to the United States, which followed, of course, the appointment of Joe Hockey that we did not disagree with, and the appointment of Kim Beazley who had his position as Ambassador to the United States extended. It is a matter of having the right person for the right job. And I await this inquiry, which is, of course, been the matter of considerable concern there to the people of the South Wales.

KARVELAS: Prime Minister, many thanks for joining us this morning.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, Patricia.