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Seeing Australia through the storm – 30 Nov 2022

(Speech to Parlialment on motion of censure)


I thank the Australian people for the privilege to serve as their Prime Minister. I thank the people of Cook for the privilege they have given me to serve in this House as their member. I thank my colleagues, here in this place and in previous parliaments, who have asked me in the past to lead and for the faith they have placed in me. I am proud of my achievements in this place and I am proud of my government. I am proud that at a time of extreme trial my government stood up and faced the abyss of uncertainty that our country looked into and the coercion of a regional bully and saw Australia through the storm. Australia emerged stronger under my government.


I have no intention now, Mr Speaker, of submitting to the political intimidation of this government using its numbers in this place to impose its retribution on a political opponent. In addressing the matters that are the subject of the motion, I repeat that I have welcomed and supported the recommendations of the Bell inquiry, and I note the following facts for the House.


The authorities to administer departments were established as a dormant redundancy only to be activated in extraordinary circumstances, evidenced by the fact that no powers were exercised under these authorities, except in the case of the PEP 11 decision, as such circumstances were not realised and, therefore, none of these authorities were misused.


The Solicitor-General found that the authorities established to administer departments in this way were valid and were not unlawful. Other than in the case of the PEP 11 decision, ministers exercised their portfolio authorities fully, without intervention or the threat of intervention, and departments supported their ministers in that capacity without uncertainty regarding their ministerial authorities.


As Prime Minister I did not act as minister or engage in any co-minister arrangements, as suggested, including requiring the receipt of any parallel briefing or co-authorising arrangements, except in the very specific case of the PEP 11 decision and not otherwise for that department. On the PEP 11 matter, this was done lawfully from first principles and I consider my decision was the correct one. My intent to exercise these powers was also advised to the minister in advance of exercising those powers. The ministry list tabled in parliament referenced, as it does, that ministers may be sworn to administer additional departments. The requirements requiring notice purported to constitute convention in the motion were not identified or recognised by officials advising on these matters from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and cannot therefore be clearly regarded as established convention. The Solicitor-General found there is no consistent practice for a publication in the Gazette of appointments to administer particular departments of state. The Bell inquiry noted there was a different understanding of the process of publication between myself and the department and that no instruction was given by me as Prime Minister or my office not to publish those arrangements in the Gazette. In relation to communication with my ministerial colleagues on these matters I note that I’ve addressed these issues privately with my colleagues and publicly in my statement of 16 August 2022.


I also note, as is particularly relevant to this House and this motion, that I was present each and every day at that dispatch box to answer any and all questions in this House regularly directed to me as Prime Minister on all matters involving all portfolios that were the subject of the Bell inquiry and, indeed, all other portfolios. The suggestion that, as Prime Minister, I was not available to do so in this House or that the opposition failed to ask such questions in those portfolios is absurd and completely false.


I also note that, in my earlier portfolio responsibilities where I was sworn to hold the office of Treasurer, Minister for Social Services and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, my appointments as minister of state specifically made reference in the documents authorised by the Governor-General that I was sworn to hold the office as minister in each of these portfolios. In my appointment as a minister of state to administer the departments that were the subject of the Bell inquiry this was not the case. The documentation authorised by the Governor-General carefully does not include any reference to being sworn to hold the office of minister for any of the portfolios that were the subject of the Bell inquiry, simply to administer the department. This can be seen in appendix A, at pages 107 to 110 of the Bell inquiry report. This is a very important distinction. Just because a minister is sworn to administer a department does not mean they hold the office of minister in that portfolio.


I should say, the contention that the public would also be popularly under the impression that the Prime Minister did not have authority over government departments is extremely unlikely. Furthermore, the proposition that the public would not hold the Prime Minister accountable for the actions of the government is also not credible and counter to the argument that was put forward by the opposition when I was Prime Minister each and every day that I sat in this House.


Returning to the issue of being sworn, I was not sworn to hold the office of any of those ministerial portfolios, and, as a result, any contention that I served as minister of those portfolios in that office is false.


On the substantive matters—I return to those now—in each of the decisions taken during my time as Prime Minister to administer departments I note again that our nation faced the greatest challenges we had experienced since the Second World War: a drought, natural disasters, a global pandemic, the global and domestic recession, the pandemic cause, and a rising and coercive China seeking to coerce Australia into submission. These were extremely challenging times.


To put the economic challenge in context, according to the IMF, during the first year of the pandemic the global economy shrank by 3.1 per cent. This is more than 30 times the magnitude of the economic decline during the global financial crisis of 2009. That was a crisis. During this period, we were fighting for our very survival from a public health, economic and national security perspective. As Prime Minister I sought to exercise my responsibilities during this extremely difficult period in a manner that would best advance and protect Australia’s national interests and the welfare of the Australian people. That is what I had pledged to do, and I am pleased that, through these efforts and the efforts of so many others I worked with closely, Australia was able to emerge from this period of significant crisis in a safer and more prosperous position than almost any other country in the world. That was the objective of my government and, together with my colleagues here and those who formerly sat with us, that was achieved.


In February this year Bill Gates was asked at the Munich Security Conference whether it was possible to prevent the next pandemic. He answered by citing Australia’s response to the pandemic, referring to it as ‘the gold standard’, and that standard was one we met. He said, ‘If every country did what Australia did then we wouldn’t be calling it a pandemic.’ That is something any government could be proud of. The New York Times calculated in May this year that, if the United States had the same death rate as Australia, about 900,000 lives would have been saved. Johns Hopkins University ranked Australia second in the world in pandemic preparedness. Bloomberg ranked Australia the world’s fifth most COVID-resilient nation.


Shortly after I left office after the last election, Australia had the third-lowest mortality rate in the OECD from COVID at 401 deaths per million population. This can be compared with Canada at 1,106 per million, the United Kingdom at 2,688 per million and the United States at over 3,000 per million. During the pandemic it was estimated that, when compared to the average fatality rates of OECD countries, Australia’s response saved more than 30,000 lives. More than 95 per cent of Australia’s adult population had been administered two vaccine doses and we had commenced fourth doses. Unlike in so many other countries—advanced, developed countries—our hospital system had not been overrun by the pandemic. And since December 2019, when the pandemic first struck, Australia’s economy had grown by 4½ per cent. This compares to growth of 3.9 per cent in Korea, 2.7 per cent in the US, less than one per cent in the UK, Canada, and France, and the Japanese and German economies remained in negative territory.


Australia’s success was also achieved by limiting the scale of the economic decline during COVID. In Australia the economic decline caused by COVID was 2.2 per cent. This compares to 3.4 per cent in the US, 4½ per cent in Japan, 4.6 per cent in Germany, eight per cent in France and 9.3 per cent in the United Kingdom. At the same time, Australia’s unemployment rate fell to below four per cent, the lowest in almost half a century, with almost 600,000 more jobs than we had before the pandemic began. During this time the government made unprecedented investments in our health and economic response. JobKeeper kept 700,000 businesses in business. It kept more than one million Australians in work. And despite these unpredicted outlays, Australia, through the pandemic and the crisis, was one of only nine countries in the world to retain our AAA credit rating.


Our response was timely, it was targeted, and it was temporary. We responsibly retired measures as soon as it was prudent. This led to an historic reduction in the budget deficit in our final year of more than $100 billion. During this time, I and the government made many decisions, from closing our international borders to making our own vaccines and directly manufacturing PPE. We tried many things. We were dealing with extreme uncertainty and unpredictability. The Australian people were rightly fearful for their own health and economic security. The mindset at this time was to seek to prepare as best as possible for as many contingencies as possible. This was not always successful, as was the experience of all countries around the world at the time. No leader and no nation had a perfect record, but Australia can be proud that we had one of the very best.


At the same time, significant powers were activated by the government, including under the Biosecurity Act and in financial delegations to the Minister for Finance, that were beyond the oversight of cabinet. I elected to put in place a redundancy to those powers and an oversight on those powers in the departments of Health and Finance. I do not resile from these decisions and believe them entirely necessary, mirroring many arrangements similarly being implemented in the private sector at the time. My omission was not having personally informed the Minister for Finance, who I believed had been informed through my office. I was mistaken about that, which was only brought to my attention when I made these matters public. I’ve addressed this issue directly with the then Minister for Finance. Had I been asked about these matters at the time at the numerous press conferences I held, I would’ve responded truthfully about the arrangements I had put in place. The recommendations of the Bell inquiry will appropriately remedy this deficiency in the future, and I support them.


The decision to take on authority to administer the departments of Treasury and Home Affairs in 2021 as a dormant redundancy for decisions that were not subject to cabinet oversight was to be able to take swift action, if necessary, in the national interest at a time when Australians’ interests were under constant threat. I now consider that these decisions, in hindsight, were unnecessary and that insufficient consideration was given to these decisions at the time, including nondisclosure. I therefore accept the recommendations put forward by the Bell inquiry as an appropriate remedy to these shortcomings. I note again that these authorities were never exercised and, as a result, had no impact on the functions or actions of the government. It is strange to describe such actions as a power grab, as they were never exercised or even used to exercise influence over the relevant ministers. They were simply a dormant redundancy.


In relation to the decision to take authority to administer the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources for the purpose of being able to consider PEP 11, I do not resile from that action. The authority was lawfully sought and exercised on a specific matter solely. I considered it unnecessary to dismiss the minister to deal with this matter, as he was doing a fine job, and unlawful to inappropriately pressure him in relation to this decision. I therefore lawfully took the decision from first principles in his place. I believe the decision I made on PEP 11 was the correct one.


I note the criticisms made of my decisions to be authorised to administer a series of departments have been made from the safety and relative calm of hindsight. I also note that as Prime Minister my awareness of issues regarding national security at this time and the national interest was broader than known to individual ministers and any third party. This limits the ability for third parties to draw definitive conclusions on such matters and sit in judgement. During the course of my prime ministership I made many decisions. These decisions were taken during an extremely challenging period where there was a need for considerable urgency and there was great stress on the system and individuals. None of us can claim to be infallible in such circumstances, and I do not. There are always lessons to be learned from such times and events.


I acknowledge that the nondisclosure of arrangements has caused unintentional offence and extend an apology to those who were offended, but I do not apologise for taking action, especially prudent redundancy action, in a national crisis in order to save lives and to save livelihoods. I also agree with and thank the many who have expressed their support that any perceived deficiencies in the handling of these matters must be reasonably and fairly weighed against the overarching success of the numerous other decisions taken and efforts made under extreme pressure to save lives and livelihoods. This motion fails to do this and, sadly, therefore betrays its true motive that is entirely partisan. The government’s response to censure and prosecute this motion is to engage in the politics of retribution and nothing less. These are the behaviours of an opposition, not a government who understands that grace in victory is a virtue. I recommend that their response as a government should simply be to implement the recommendations of the Bell inquiry, which I support, and focus their attention on their current and urgent responsibilities to address the many challenges Australians are now facing on their watch, especially the cost of living.


How we respond to these events is up to each and every one of us. For mine, I will take the instruction of my faith and turn the other cheek. Since the election, I have refrained from public comment, despite provocation, other than on local issues and to note the actions and achievements of my government. I accepted the result—as I should, willingly and happily—of the last election and wished the new government every success, and I have sought to move on with my life with my family and to continue to serve the people of my local electorate in Cook. I voluntarily stepped down from the leadership of my party and gave my full support to the new leadership, whom I commend. I thank them for their support, especially the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, and I thank all of my colleagues, both former and current, both now and over a long period of time, for the same. In that, I particularly acknowledge the former Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, the former Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt, and the member for Riverina, who together, the four of us, dealt with so much of that crisis each and every day together.


I have seen bitterness destroy people who have come to this place, and it continues to gnaw away at them each and every day of their lives for even decades after they leave this place. I am not one of those, nor will I ever be. I am proud of the many achievements that I have been able to accomplish in this place, especially as Prime Minister, and I am very grateful for the opportunities and to all of those I worked with to achieve them. We saw Australia through one of our most difficult times. We stood up to a bullying Chinese regime which sought to coerce and impose itself on our democracy through threats, sanctions and intimidation. I was pleased to establish the AUKUS agreement and tighten our partnerships with all our key partners, especially the United States, Japan, India, the United Kingdom, across our region in ASEAN—we were the first country to establish a comprehensive strategic partnership with ASEAN—and, of course, our dear Pacific family. I was pleased to have strengthened our economy through the pandemic and to have seen electricity prices fall by 10 per cent on my watch as PM; for individual and small business taxes to be cut and more than 300,000 Australians directly assisted into homeownership. And, by strengthening our economy, I was pleased we were able to guarantee the essential services that Australians relied on during times of great uncertainty, with record Medicare bulk-billing rates, PBS listings at record levels and record funds for aged care, disability care and mental health.


For those who now wish to add their judgement today on my actions, in supporting this censure motion, I simply suggest that they stop and consider the following: Have you ever had to deal with a crisis where the outlook was completely unknown? In such circumstances, were you able to get all the decisions perfectly right? Where you may have made errors, were you fortunate enough for them to have had no material impact on the result, and for the result itself to prove to be world-leading? Once you have considered your own experience, or perhaps when you have had more in government, then you may wish to cast the first stone in this place.


Perhaps the response to these difficult times and events is not to go down that path but down the path of thankfulness that Australia’s performance through the pandemic was one of the strongest in the developed world; to appreciate in humility, not in retribution, that no country and no leader got all the decisions right, and gracefully take up the lessons that have been learned and equip us to do even better in the future.


It is an honour to serve in this House, and I have done that for these past 15 years. I am grateful again to the people of Cook for their strong support during this time, including most recently. I thank them for their encouragement, their many messages of support, as I and my family have returned to our dear home in the shire. I also thank my local Liberal Party members for their constant support, my local church community at Horizon Church for their prayers, and people of faith from all around the country who have extended the same. I have been humbled by your messages of support and encouragement.


I also thank again my colleagues here in this place, and formerly, for their support. It is indeed an honour to serve alongside you. I especially thank my wife, Jen, our daughters, Abbey and Lily, and my family and friends for their love and support, as well as my former staff for their great loyalty. You must always be proud of what you accomplished during our time working together. I conclude by thanking the Australian people for the privilege of being able to serve my country in so many roles, but especially as Prime Minister. I gave it everything I had. I did it to the best of my ability and in the best of faith each and every day I had the privilege to serve the Australian people.