Last Month in Politics: secret ministries and the climate crisis

Government, Anthony Albanese, Government Relations, Parliament, Politics

Purple Editor 1 Sep 2022
5 mins
Crowd of people walking into Parliament House in Canberra, Australia

Leaders old and new flexed their power and monopolised headlines throughout August.

The month’s end marked 100 days since Anthony Albanese became the 31st Prime Minister of Australia, but the milestone was widely overlooked as several sensational events unfolded both here and overseas.

Disputes escalated in global politics, as China sanctioned several Taiwan officials following U.S politician Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the democratically governed island.

Foot and Mouth cases continued to increase in neighbouring countries, with the virus being detected in animal products in Australia.

Closer to home, Canberra officials cancelled the lease for a planned new Russian embassy under a ‘use it or lose it’ policy, claiming the diplomatic headquarters was not built fast enough. 

Scott Morrison’s secret ministries

Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison dominated the political news cycle in August, after it was revealed he secretly appointed himself to five additional ministries at the onset of the pandemic.

Mr Morrison appointed himself to administer the following departments:

  • Department of Health on March 14, 2020
  • Department of Finance on March 30, 2020
  • Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources on April 15, 2021
  • Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Treasury on May 6, 2021

The then-health minister and deputy prime minister were informed of the decision for the health portfolio, but the subsequent appointments were kept between Mr Morrison and the Governor General.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese broke the news, describing the actions as “undermining our democracy” and an “attack on the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy as we know it.”

After initially claiming he could not recall if he was sworn into any ministries other than health, finance and resources, Mr Morrison apologised, saying he put the arrangements in place due to the pandemic’s uncertainty and as an emergency safeguard.

He conceded he only interfered with one decision, in relation to resources and the Department of Industry.

Mr Morrison was adamant he did not act as minister and that at no time were there two ministers in any of the five portfolios.

Politicians on both sides called for Mr Morrison to resign from Parliament, while the former PM said he was committed to his electorate of Cook but is yet to decide if he will contest the next election.

Former Prime Minister John Howard supported Mr Morrison’s decision not to resign, saying his resignation would only trigger an unnecessary byelection in a safe Liberal seat.

Following the news, Mr Albanese sought further legal advice from the Solicitor General, who said the appointments were not illegal, but fundamentally undermined the principles of responsible government. The report drew the following conclusions:

  • Mr Morrison was validly appointed by the Governor-General to administer the various departments to which he was appointed
  • The appointment was inconsistent with the conventions and practices that form an essential part of the system of responsible government
  • Nor are there any constitutional or legislative requirement for notification of such an appointment as a condition of its validity, or for the Minister to subscribe another oath or affirmation following such an appointment the report notes
  • It would have been a clear breach of the applicable conventions for the Governor-General to decline to accept and act upon the Prime Minister’s advice.
  • An unpublicised appointment to administer a department fundamentally undermined not just the proper functioning of responsible government, but also the relationship between the ministry and the public service 
Addressing the climate crisis

Labor delivered one of its signature election commitments in August, addressing the climate crisis by introducing new legislation designed to help meet its emissions reduction targets.

The Climate Change Bill 2022 will bring into law an emissions reduction target of 43 per cent from levels recorded in 2005 by 2030, and subsequently net zero emissions by 2050.

The Bill is the country’s first climate change legislation in more than a decade and will increase the role played by the Climate Change Authority (CCA).

The CCA will be required to provide advice on progress towards the targets and advise on new targets for 2035 later this parliamentary term.

The government will be required to release the advice to the public and provide rationale if it doesn’t follow it.

But the Bill does not include any mechanism or funding to cut emissions.

Passing the Bill in the House of Representatives is big step towards implementing the Government’s Powering Australia initiative to create jobs, place downward pressure on power bills and reduce emissions through renewable energy.

The Bill will be handed to the Senate and debated in the upcoming sitting weeks. 

Albanese government milestones

Mr Albanese became the first Labor Prime Minister in nine years when Australian voters decisively swept the Liberal-National Coalition out of power in the May federal election.

From the get-go, Labor expressed clear priorities, such as establishing a national anti-corruption commission, advancing constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, and convening an Employment Summit.

The new PM also committed to the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full in his victory speech, and in a subtle yet poignant demonstration of how his policy priorities would differ from his predecessor, introduced the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders flags to his press conference background.

The Albanese government has already achieved some big milestones, including passing its first bill in the House of Representatives. Some of the notable achievements so far include:

  • The most female Ministers since federation
  • First visit from a foreign leader (Jacinda Ardern)
  • The French submarine settlement
  • Mr Albanese’s visit to Ukraine
  • Climate Change Bill 2022 passed the House of Representatives
  • Increasing the minimum wage by 5.2%
  • Introduced legislation for 10 days of paid domestic and family violence leave
  • Making critical devices more affordable for Australians with Type 1 diabetes
  • Banning Ministers’ use of blind trusts through new code of conduct rules
ACCC gas shortage report and ADGSM extension

At the beginning of August, Treasurer Jim Chalmers released the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s latest gas report, which forecasts a 56 petajoule shortfall to the east coast market in 2023.

In response to the report, Resources and Northern Australia Minister Madeleine King announced a range of Government actions to safeguard gas supplies, including an extension of the Australian Domestic Gas Security Mechanism (ADGSM) until 2030, with a review due in 2025.

The ADGSM is a measure that allows government to restrict gas exports to ensure enough is available for domestic use if a shortfall is predicted.

Discussions are now under way to update regulations for the ‘trigger’ to be pulled on the mechanism, with discussion papers released on the reform options.

Minister King also opened talks with gas producers on a new Heads of Agreement with the Government, to further ensure adequate gas supply.

Donald Trump and the disappearing documents

Federal investigators descended on former United States President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, as part of an investigation into the alleged mishandling of classified material.

The New York Times reported more than 300 classified documents had been recovered from Mr Trump since he left office, with two batches of documents voluntarily returned in January and June, and more than 100 seized by the FBI in its August 8 search.

A recent court filing by the Department of Justice indicated that the search came after several efforts to retrieve the documents had failed, as reports emerged that Mr Trump’s lawyers asserted in June that no additional classified information was stored at the estate.

Mr Trump maintained he was entitled to keep the documents, insisting that he had a ‘standing order’ to declassify material moved from the Oval Office to the White House residence.

But under the Presidential Records Act, official material remains government property and must be provided to the National Archives and Records Administration at the end of a president’s term.

This incident marks the first time a former US president’s residence has been searched in a criminal probe, while the Justice Department’s investigation is ongoing.