TV interview – ABC Afternoon Briefing with Greg Jennett

Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Let’s discuss some of the major news stories of the day, which we’ve already been discussing, in fact, since the outset. We’re joined now by our political panel this Monday from Perth Labor’s Patrick Gorman is with us, welcome Patrick, and from his home base in Gippsland, the National’s Darren Chester, welcome back, Darren. I might go to you first, Pat Gorman, because you’ve been in the rough and tumble of a Prime Ministerial office, namely Kevin Rudd’s. Scott Morrison’s use of this discretion, I suppose you could call it almost, certainly undeclared discretion to expand Ministerial portfolios. Was that ever a temptation that arose in the PMO you worked in?

PATRICK GORMAN, ASSISTANT MINISTER TO THE PRIME MINISTER: This is completely against the Westminster principles of government and just because you can doesn’t mean you should. And just because you can choose to keep something secret and swear yourself in as Minister for a range of things doesn’t mean this is in any way acceptable behaviour. And I think myself, like many Australians today, including some in former Prime Minister Morrison’s own cabinet, are completely outraged by this. There is no explanation, the former Prime Minister hasn’t explained this himself as to why he made these secret decisions. I mean, he’s not Batman fighting crime by night and running a business by day, this was in the most serious times that our nation has faced, in the middle of a pandemic, swearing himself in as Health Minister, Finance Minister, and then to find out, Resources Minister. It’s bizarre, it’s unacceptable and I think we all want to see answers as to why this happened. Was it legal? Because we know it certainly wasn’t acceptable.

JENNETT: Well, I’ve got a few more questions I can tease out with you, Patrick Gorman, but let’s take it over to Darren Chester now, what rankles with you, Darren? Can I maybe suggest picking up Patrick’s point that this was a pandemic and could it be argued, possibly, that the health responsibilities were, you know, maybe justified because of the extraordinary powers that would have been conferred on Greg Hunt? But then subsequently it seems to have become an expedient for Prime Ministerial power grabs?

DARREN CHESTER, NATIONALS MP: Well g’day Greg and g’day Patrick. I think, Greg, what you just described to me then was something that I could largely agree with. I can see during the pandemic where it would be necessary to have, I guess, a level of redundancy in the system, in the sense that if the Health Minister became sick or something like that, the Prime Minister having the equivalent powers, that makes a lot of sense to me. It was a pandemic and we’re still enduring that, so I can see some sense in that. But I was surprised to read about the other swearing ins. I think there are legitimate questions that can be asked of that. I wasn’t aware of it when I was a Minister at the time, from my dealings with the Prime Minister when I was veterans Minister. Yes, he was very involved and engaged in veterans affairs issues but really gave me the authority to do my job and I had a good working relationship with him and his office.

JENNETT: Do you think, Darren Chester, that there may be some hints here? Bridget McKenzie seemed to make an indication of this, that it was used as a mechanism to resolve disagreement with a Minister. I suppose the best example would be Keith Pitt in Resources, that it was invoked by the Prime Minister rather than seeking a resignation or something, the simple expedient became the use of Ministerial additional powers for the Prime Minister. Do you think there’s anything in that theory, Darren?

CHESTER: Well, I’m not too sure, Greg, how it got to this point. I mean, from my time in cabinet, my time as an outer Minister as well, there are a whole range of difficult issues that could normally be resolved through the cabinet processes, where you would sit down and debate a topic and get an outcome and go forward from there. So that was the normal approach that was adopted during my time in Cabinet. So look, I can’t add much more to the debate I’m sorry. I was surprised by the announcements over the weekend that came to light, and I think there are legitimate questions that can be asked and I think explanation should be given to the Australian public as to why we got ourselves to this position. I can understand again, as you indicated during the pandemic, how the health portfolio was obviously one of critical interest, but I’m just not too sure about the other appointments, how they came about.

JENNETT: All right, Pat Gorman, is it the act of expanding these dual appointments that upsets you the most, or is it the secrecy? And if it is the latter, if it’s the secrecy, couldn’t this easily be resolved by having protocols around, maybe the functions of Government House so the media release could be issued when this happened? Would that fix it?

GORMAN: Well, transparency is a key part of democracy, and on this question of which is the worst, the secrecy or undermine, Prime Minister undermining their own Ministers, I’m not sure which is worse. Just the whole thing completely stinks. It’s not unreasonable that the public who elect governments would want to know who is in charge of certain portfolios. I think for myself, as a West Australian, we have a lot of interest in the resources portfolio. This is a resources state. So it would have been nice to know that the Prime Minister himself was a resources Minister on his visits to this state. On the question of the two Health Ministers, when the Prime Minister had sworn himself in as secret Health Minister, he was also backing Clive Palmer against the health advice that the State of Western Australia had that was keeping people safe. He did that as Health Minister. It was already outrageous, but now it’s just taken it to another level of ridiculousness. And I think in this interview today, what strikes me is that Darren, who had respect from all sides of politics in terms of some of the work he did in the portfolio, Darren, to this day doesn’t know if Scott Morrison secretly swore himself in as Veterans Affairs Minister. I mean, this is completely ridiculous. And we deserve, as the public who paid the Prime Minister a salary to do that job for three years when Scott Morrison was the Prime Minister, we deserve some answers.

JENNETT: Well there is a point there, isn’t there, Darren? We don’t actually know where this ended. We’re talking about three additional portfolio responsibilities. But for all we know, and the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, has put the department onto this, for all we know, there could well be more of them.

CHESTER: Well, I’m not in a position to speculate Greg, I’m not in much of a position to comment, and you know it was news to me over the weekend. And I’m sorry, I can’t contribute much more to the debate than I already indicated. I think some reasonable questions are being asked and the Australian public will seek an explanation and rightly so. But I really don’t know if there have been other portfolios, I’ve got no idea to be honest.

JENNETT: Yeah, well, maybe we’re all in the same boat there, which is why we’re anticipating further announcements from this review that Anthony Albanese has ordered. Why don’t we move on to some other matters? Quick one on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, because as MPs, you’d always receive feedback from your electorate on these matters, when we learn that fraud has been perpetrated on the scheme in very large amounts. To you first Patrick Gorman, are there any surprises in this revelation by Michael Phelan and the Criminal Intelligence Commission, or was it not something that we’ve largely been alerted to quite some time ago?

GORMAN: I was surprised at some of the reports of the scale and the tactics that are used to defraud people from the support that the Commonwealth gives them so that they can go about living full lives. I’ll say that I was surprised, but I’m also encouraged to see that the Minister in charge of this in Bill Shorten, indicated that he had some suspicions from very early on when he was sworn into that portfolio and that he asked for briefings about criminal activity in the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Unfortunately, no part of society is free from people who might try to use illegal schemes to defraud others of money, but people who prey on the most vulnerable and people who have been waiting for years and years to be able to get access to a National Disability Insurance Scheme package. What an awful thing to do. One of the lowest of crimes, in my view.

JENNETT: Yeah, it’s not victimless is it Darren Chester? Because money removed for inappropriate or illegal purposes is money that’s not going to reach needy recipients.

CHESTER: Look, Greg, I agree with Patrick here. This is just bloody disgusting that some Australians think it’s okay to take money that was otherwise intended to go into the pockets of some of our most vulnerable Australians, our people with disabilities, and to fraudulently claim money and rip off the system. I’ve spoken to the Minister, Bill Shorten, today about it and encouraged him to pursue them with every vigour he can and ensure that they’re brought to justice. It is disgusting to think that people would stoop to this level and be taking money from some of our most vulnerable Australians. So all credit to Minister Shorten in pursuing that through the normal channels and make sure that the perpetrators are brought to justice. And more broadly, in terms of the NDIS, there is some ongoing issues there. It’s a scheme that has bipartisan support. We’ve got to make sure that the support is going to the people who need the most, that we can crack down in any overcharging or other activity which is on the edge and make sure the money actually gets out the door to the people who deserve that support.

JENNETT: Yeah, a final quick reflection by both of you on the anniversary, the one year anniversary of the fall of Kabul, back under Taliban control. Darren, I’ll go to you first of all, just the processing of visas for anyone still seeking to make their way to Australia. Are you satisfied, Darren Chester, that all due diligence is being applied in that process?

CHESTER: Well first of all, can I say to the veterans of that conflict, the work you did was noble and justified and you should never underestimate the opportunity you gave, particularly to women in Afghanistan, that chance for education and that chance for a better future. Notwithstanding the fact that we’ve seen what’s occurred since with the Taliban coming back into control and the need for these humanitarian visas to be processed as quickly as possible. To allow people with legitimate claims to find resettlement to come to Australia where possible or to other coalition countries which assisted in Afghanistan. I think we need to work as quickly as we possibly can with all the necessary checks, all the necessary security checks. But recognise that many people worked with the coalition forces to try and keep their countrymen and women safe. And we have an opportunity as a wealthy nation here in Australia to provide that support as a resettler here in our own country. So there’s more work to be done. But on that one year anniversary, I just want to reassure our veteran community the work you did there was worthwhile, even if it didn’t get the result we’re looking for in the longer term, never underestimate the opportunity you provided to the men and women, particularly the children as well, in Afghanistan.

JENNETT: Now, point well made. And just finally, then, to you, Patrick Gorman. Can this be hastened, expedited in any way, the processing?

GORMAN: Well, of course, wherever possible, we want these visas to be processed through the right channels as quickly as possible. This circumstance that has led to a huge surge in applications is obviously just so tragic in terms of the Taliban retaking Afghanistan a year ago. Today, I’ll share with Darren and what he said, paying tribute to our armed services personnel. Some 26,000 Australians served in Afghanistan. On top of that, we have diplomats, people working with non-government organisations and aid organisations. Australia and Australians did so much to help Afghanistan transition to democracy. And so it’s still very sad to see what’s happened there. And again, as Darren said, for young women and girls now in Afghanistan today from the age of 13 onwards no longer having access to education. An absolute tragedy in 2022, anywhere in the world, not meeting our development objectives. I hope that’s not the case forever, but yeah, on the one year anniversary of the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan, I think it’s just a moment to reflect how fortunate we are in Australia and our obligations to the world when it comes to aid, maintaining peace and stability and helping maintain democracy.

JENNETT: Yes, thanks for making that point, both of you, actually, Patrick Gorman and Darren Chester, on that note, we’ll wrap it up. Thank both of you once again and talk to you again soon.

GORMAN: Thanks, Greg.

CHESTER: All the best.

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