Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National, RN Breakfast

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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23 August 2022

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Later today, Cabinet will be presented with advice from the Commonwealth Solicitor‑General about former Prime Minister Scott Morrison being secretly sworn into five ministries that, well, were a secret – we didn’t know about. While the advice has not been made public, reports this morning indicate it is scathing of the former Prime Minister’s conduct, particularly the failure to inform relevant Ministers, Parliament, or the Australian public. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has indicated he’ll establish an inquiry into the scandal, and there are calls from across the Parliament to close whatever loopholes allowed it to happen. Even if it’s legal, why is it legal? How can it happen?

Richard Marles is the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence and our guest this morning. Richard Marles, welcome.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER RICHARD MARLES: Good morning, Patricia. How are you?

KARVELAS: Good. You haven’t seen the advice, but you’ve said Scott Morrison should face severe consequences for his behaviour. What do severe consequences look like?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I actually think, ultimately, that is a question for the Liberal Party, and I want to see what Peter Dutton actually thinks should happen here for somebody who has clearly treated the Australian people with total contempt in that there was no transparency. He’s treated his colleagues with contempt, but he’s treated the Cabinet process with contempt and that’s really at the heart of the Westminster system. And for someone who’s so completely flouted, really, our own system of government, there’s got to be some political consequence. You know, we heard Karen Andrews say he should resign from Parliament. Peter Dutton seems to think it’s okay, as long as he makes a few calls and says sorry. Surely it can’t be as simple as that. We really need to hear from Peter Dutton about whether he thinks it is okay that we have somebody who is secretly sworn in to administer five separate departments of the Commonwealth Government – 

KARVELAS: Hang on a minute. Peter Dutton has said he doesn’t think it’s okay. He’s made that clear.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, but is it enough to just make a couple of phone calls and say sorry, or is there something more significant here which happens as a result of doing this? I mean, we’ve got a situation where people who were administering their departments, Ministers, had no idea that there was somebody in the background who had all their powers as well and was able to administer them at the same time. I mean, there’s a whole lot of issues that can arise from this, a whole lot of problems in the way in which government is administered, not least of which is all of this is happening in a way that is completely un‑transparent.

KARVELAS: So, you say Karen Andrews – you mentioned she called for him to resign – do you back Karen Andrews’ call?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is squarely a question for the Liberal Party.

KARVELAS: Sure, but I’m asking you because you’re my guest today. Do you think it would be in the best interests of Australian democracy for him to fall on his sword, so to speak, and to resign from Parliament immediately?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think the consequences have to be severe, and I think it is a matter for Peter Dutton to answer that question. From the point of view of the government, we want to learn the lessons of this to make sure that this can never happen again. I mean, I can tell you that what we draw from this is that we will always be transparent with the Australian people about who’s actually governing the country, who has powers to administer which department. That’s the way in which we’re going to go about things. But we also want to understand the legality of this so that we can make sure that not only our government but governments in the future operate in a way that is transparent, and if there’s loopholes that need to be closed here, then they will be closed.

KARVELAS: Okay and in terms of an inquiry - the Government says there should be an inquiry - I spoke to Liberal MP Bridget Archer yesterday. She said the inquiry should be broadened to include wider issues like the Governor‑General’s role and the Public Service’s role. Do you think it should be wider and look at those issues?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think the starting point is we need to understand what Scott Morrison did here as the former Prime Minister. I mean, that’s where the decision trail started. He’s the person who initiated all of this. I think we need to understand what has happened there and look at those other questions subsequently to that –

KARVELAS: So, hang on a minute I just want to nail that down. You’re saying “subsequently”. That means after. So, an inquiry just into Scott Morrison is what you’re saying?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think fundamentally the issue here is what did Scott Morrison do. He was the Prime Minister. He was the person who exercises power. Power is exercised by the government of the day, not by the Governor‑General, not by the Public Service. It’s exercised by the government. And it’s the way in which that power was exercised by Scott Morrison which needs to be examined here, and the consequences of that, making sure that loopholes are closed, is what we need to make sure that we act on. But this starts with where power was exercised and it was exercised by the former Prime Minister.

KARVELAS: So, in terms of an inquiry, you want it to be limited to what Scott Morrison did. Should there be other inquiries into the other elements; the Public Service and the Governor‑General?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Look, we’re getting the advice today which will go to the questions of the legality of this. We want to understand what happened and make sure that it never happens again. That’s the way in which we are going to go about this – 

KARVELAS: Yeah, but on my actual question, with respect, what gets inquired into? You talk about Scott Morrison. What about the other elements? Do you think they should be inquired into?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we need to understand what happened here and it’s hard to walk down that path without first understanding exactly what Scott Morrison did and how he exercised that power. And that’s where our focus is at so that we can make sure that this never happens again.

KARVELAS: And later – you said “subsequently” – you think the other elements should be looked at?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, the point I’m simply making is if there are loopholes to be closed, they need to be closed. I mean, we’re saying that too. But what we want to do here is understand what occurred, looking forward, and making sure that it can never happen again. And that’s what we have said we will do. And that’s our responsibility as the Government of the day, looking at what’s happened in the past and how we take the country forward. I think there is a responsibility here from the Liberal Party, who own, if you like, what occurred in the past and what should now happen with Scott Morrison. And there is a real question, I think, for Peter Dutton in all this.

KARVELAS: Amending the Minister of State Act to require publication of ministerial appointments was a logical way of approaching the issue. That’s according to constitutional law experts, including Professor George Williams. Will you do that? Will you actually amend that Act?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, that may be one of the possibilities that come forward as a result of this. We want to actually look at what happened here and how we resolve this, but certainly what Professor Williams has said is an example of what might need to be done. I don’t want to pre-empt what the Solicitor‑General’s report says, but however this needs to be done, we need to be closing these loopholes.

KARVELAS: And is this a matter of priority? Are you going to be introducing legislation to fix this up, loopholes closed, reform the system as a sort of first point of an act that you’ll do in the next sitting?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, firstly, as a government, we can walk and chew gum. We get that there are a lot of issues going on out there. Cost of living, the skills crisis that we face at the moment and, of course, we’ve got the skills summit next week, and so all of these are issues which are really pressing for the Australian people. But transparent government matters too. It really matters. And it matters that the Australian people have a sense of confidence about their government, that they have a sense of knowledge about who is administering what department. And so it is important that we understand what happened here and if there are matters which need to be resolved, that they are resolved properly.

KARVELAS: Okay; and with a sense of urgency?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, well it’s what I just said.

KARVELAS: Okay. Just on a couple of other issues, you’re refusing to release a review of the leasing of the Port of Darwin commissioned by the previous Government. And you say that’s because some of it is confidential. Are you prepared to cancel the lease if that’s what the advice in the inquiry you’ve commissioned recommends?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don’t want to pre-empt again what advice we get. So, to be clear, the subject of the FOI request from the ABC was in respect of advice that was given to the previous Government. We don’t have access to that advice as the current Government. Elements of it have not been released because it involves classified information. I can understand how that would occur. But when it comes to the substance of this issue, we obviously didn’t support the lease of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese Government–owned company at the time. We will seek our own advice about the consequences of that and what options exist for us now. And we’ll obviously act on that advice.

KARVELAS: Just on another issue we’ve covered already this morning, new research commissioned by the Department of Defence says a conflict in the South China Sea would threaten 90 per cent of Australia’s refined fuelling imports, which is just a staggeringly high number. How vulnerable are we if conflict does break out, and what are the solutions you’re looking at?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’re a trading island nation, and we rely very heavily in terms of fuel, but in terms of the way in which we engage in our trade, the basis of our economy fundamentally on the rules of the road, which is why I often talk about, as I’ve talked about with you, the importance of the global rules‑based order and specifically freedom of navigation on the high seas. As a trading island nation, that’s fundamental to us. And what you’ve just highlighted is a really good example of it. And when we see those rules placed under pressure, that directly engages our national interests, which is why we are so focused on activities which assert the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, freedom of navigation, on bodies of water around the world but particularly on bodies of water where our trade passes, and the South China Sea is one of those.

KARVELAS: What’s the Government’s plan for getting more fuel stored in Australia? Does it involve opening up new refineries?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, firstly, it’s very important that we maintain the refineries that we have. One of those is, of course, in my electorate in Geelong. We are very much looking at the question of fuel storage so that we can have a sense of confidence about this – have a sense of sovereign capability, if you like, around this. But I come back to the point; what this highlights is how important for our nation the global rules-based order is, freedom of navigation, the rules of the road. And that’s why we do everything we can to assert them.

KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us this morning.



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