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Joint press conference with Prime Minister – Sydney

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP
Transcript

E&OE

Subjects: Establishment of inquiry into the appointment of Scott Morrison to multiple departments.

PRIME MINISTER ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good afternoon. The government has established an inquiry into the appointment of former Prime Minister Scott Morrison to administer various ministerial portfolios. The inquiry will be led by the Honourable Virginia Bell AC. Virginia Bell was appointed to the High Court of Australia in 2009 and served for twelve years. Virginia Bell is an eminent individual with an extensive and diverse legal career as a community lawyer, a barrister, a Law Reform Commissioner, a Supreme Court as well as Court of Appeal judge, before assuming her high office in the High Court of Australia. Ms Bell will provide her report by 25 November this year. The Terms of Reference for the inquiry were agreed to by the Cabinet. It's very clear, when we received the advice from the Solicitor-General, who said to, quote: "The principles of responsible government are fundamentally undermined by the actions of the former government," that we need to have a quick and appropriate inquiry which is not about the politics but about how this happened, why it happened, who knew about it. We need to have transparency in the process because our system of parliamentary democracy relies upon conventions, relies upon the Westminster System of checks and balances. And as was made very clear in the statement by the Solicitor-General, he said: "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." This inquiry will report into Mr Morrison's appointment to administer the departments of Health; Finance; Industry, Science, Energy and Resources; Treasury; and Home Affairs. It will also examine the implications arising from these appointments for the functioning of departments, government business enterprises and statutory bodies, and for accountability and public confidence in our system of government. The Terms of Reference also require the inquiry to examine and report on practices and processes applying to ministerial appointments, including the public disclosure of these appointments. The inquiry will make recommendations to the government on any changes which could provide greater transparency and accountability to ensure that this can never happen again, and to ensure that we have a system of government in this country that is transparent, where there are checks and balances, and where there is accountability.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL MARK DREYFUS QC: This inquiry is one which is required. This inquiry is one which absolutely was made necessary by the Solicitor-General's advice, which expressed in the clearest possible terms that what occurred here with Mr Morrison having himself appointed to five ministries was contrary to, inconsistent with, the conventions and practices of responsible government which are critical to our constitutional democracy. As the Prime Minister has made clear earlier in the week, our government has committed to publishing all ministerial appointments, but we need to make sure that this can never happen again. With the very eminent Australian lawyer, Ms Virginia Bell, former High Court Justice, now being asked to inquire into this matter, she will be able to get to the bottom of what occurred. She will be able to make – after consulting with everyone that has something to say about this, after hearing from any member of the Australian community who wants to write to her, offering suggestions – she will be able to make concrete recommendations to our government so that we make sure that no future government can ever do what Mr Morrison did.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, will Scott Morrison be compelled to attend?

PRIME MINISTER: The appointment of a former High Court judge is certainly one that I think can bring confidence from the Australian public that people will participate in the inquiry. There will be the opportunity for public submissions and Virginia Bell will ask to speak to people who were involved or who had knowledge at the time. We chose not to go down the road of a royal commission. We think this gets the balance right. But I would find it extraordinary if anyone refused to talk to a former High Court judge who is, I think, beyond reproach. I'm certain that this appointment will be seen for what it is and that people will cooperate by giving information. Certainly, the public service will be required, and I don't think it will require compulsion. But if it was the case that Virginia Bell felt like she was not getting the cooperation that was required, then I'm certain that other measures could be considered.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, would the remit of this inquiry expand to include the Governor-General's role?

PRIME MINISTER: The Governor-General has made clear that his actions were upon the advice of the government, and that's the focus of the inquiry. If you look at the Terms of Reference which are there, the Governor-General has a particular place under our constitutional system.

JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to Scott Morrison on this matter?

PRIME MINISTER: No.

JOURNALIST: Just back on the Governor-General, if he does give evidence, will Her Majesty be advised that he will be giving evidence in the inquiry?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That particular matter is going to be a matter for the Governor-General to deal with. But I think we should leave to Ms Bell, a very eminent Australian lawyer who's devoted her life to serving the Australian community, to manage this inquiry appropriately. As the PM has said, it seems to me very unlikely that if Ms Virginia Bell, a former High Court justice, is asking for cooperation from former ministers or anyone concerned with Australia's government, that cooperation will not be forthcoming.

PRIME MINISTER: I should point out as well at this point that the administration of this inquiry will be done by the Attorney-General's Department, given that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet was clearly involved in this so as to make sure that there is an appropriate distance from the inquiry.

JOURNALIST: Will it be public or private hearings?

PRIME MINISTER: Virginia Bell will be talking with people. There will certainly be public submissions.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's very appropriate that we leave to Ms Bell exactly how she conducts this inquiry. One possibility is that she will - and, again, I'm not determining how Ms Bell is going to conduct this inquiry - but one possibility will be that she could invite the public to make submissions to her and, with her permission, those submissions could be made public. We'll leave it to Ms Bell - it's really important that this be seen as an independent inquiry conducted by her, appropriate to her status. She will be reporting to the government at the end of November and it's up to her how she conducts this.

JOURNALIST: On that, how will you ensure that distance doesn't turn into, for example, a political witch-hunt, for example, of going back to former Prime Ministers? How are you going to ensure that distance, that it is an independent inquiry so you don't get all the brouhaha that it's politicised, and so on?

PRIME MINISTER: I do note that a range of former Prime Ministers have said that they would not have done this action. I note that Peter Dutton seems to have been dismissing the significance of this in spite of the very clear statement from the Solicitor-General in the advice that he gave to the government, which we made public. We are now appointing a former High Court judge. No-one can argue that this is a former minister or politician being appointed - this is someone far removed from politics, who is respected across the board. And we don't want to direct Virginia Bell into how she conducts the inquiry. I do thank her for being prepared to undertake this inquiry. It is something that is very positive, the fact that we have such an eminent person undertaking this inquiry means that it should be welcomed by all who hold our parliamentary system of democracy dear, by all who understand that we can't take it for granted and we need to protect it. The reason why the inquiry will report by 25 November, means that there will be a parliamentary sitting after that so that any changes that are required and recommended can be implemented, put to the parliament in the following sitting week. So that it can be dealt with expeditiously and dealt with in an appropriate manner.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We've had great clarity given to this by the three former Liberal Prime Ministers of Australia. John Howard saying on Mr Morrison's conduct in appointing himself to five ministries: "I don't think he should have done that. I don't think there was any need to do it, and I wouldn't have." Mr Abbott said, "I'm just not going to defend what was done. It is just highly unconventional, highly unorthodox and shouldn't have happened." And Mr Turnbull, Mr Morrison's immediate predecessor, said this: "This is sinister stuff. This is secret government. This is one of the most appalling things I've ever heard in our federal government. I mean, the idea that a Prime Minister would be sworn in to other ministers secretly is incredible." So, that's the backdrop to this, that the three past Liberal Prime Ministers of our country have, all of them, condemned this conduct. That's why it needs to be investigated. And I'm very happy that Ms Bell has agreed to undertake this inquiry and to undertake it expeditiously. And as the PM has just said, she will be reporting to the government in time for legislative action to be taken in the last two sitting weeks of the year.

JOURNALIST: Will Scott Morrison be compelled to give evidence? Also, will the ex-PM’s staff be asked to give evidence, especially Phil Gaetjens?

PRIME MINISTER: That will be up to Virginia Bell who's conducting this inquiry. It's not the government doing the inquiry into the former government, this is at arm's length. Virginia Bell has been had been appointed to this role. I think it is good that someone clearly of such standing is conducting this inquiry. It is important that people cooperate with this inquiry of Virginia Bell. It is less than two weeks since Australians found out about the appointment to any of the additional departments and ministries that Mr Morrison was appointed to. Not just Australians, it is less than two weeks, since the former Treasurer and the former and current Secretary of the Department of Treasury found out that Mr Morrison had been sworn into the job that Mr Frydenberg thought he held and he held alone. These are extraordinary circumstances. You can't just dismiss it in the way that Peter Dutton has. But what we have done is very quickly determined to have an appropriate level inquiry with a former High Court judge, and we have every confidence that people will cooperate with it. If there isn't cooperation, then there are other matters that can be considered in the future. But I would urge people to cooperate with the inquiry. Virginia Bell has undertaken to lead this work and it's important. It's important so that people can have confidence in our parliamentary democracy. Thanks very much.

[ENDS]