Topics: Ministerial portfolio responsibilities during the previous government


09:20PM ACST



Stacey Lee: Senator Simon Birmingham, good morning to you.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Good to be with you.


Stacey Lee: When did you find out that the former prime minister was also the finance minister?


Simon Birmingham: Look, my recollection is that in terms of Scott Morrison being sworn in to the health portfolio, I can recall a discussion at some point at the very early days of the pandemic when extraordinary powers were being used. That he had had himself sworn into that as well, just as a precaution, given the speed with which decisions were being made and the need to have people able to sign off on those actions. I don’t recall something specific to finance at the time, but there were similar decisions being made around finance. Now, so far as I’m aware, he never exercised any powers in either of those portfolios. He certainly didn’t as finance minister whilst I was in that portfolio. But obviously we’ve learnt of elements of these swearing ins in recent days.


Stacey Lee: So the Prime Minister was also the finance minister while you held that role, but you didn’t know about it at the time?


Simon Birmingham: Stacey, I’m not 100% on that to be clear. It was being reported now that he was sworn to that portfolio before I became the Finance Minister. Whilst I was the finance minister, he certainly never exercised any powers, sought to do so or did anything that suggested to me that he had been sworn to the portfolio.


David Bevan: So you’re on your way to Launceston and you’re going to sit down with a whole bunch of other shadow ministers, many of whom held portfolios in the former government. It’s going to be a really interesting meeting, isn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I trust we’ll spend most of the meeting focused on the future because-


David Bevan: Well, I reckon the start of the meeting is going to involve people saying, well, did he have your portfolio? I don’t know. Did he have yours? Did he? Did he ever use it? You’ve got some serious trash to take out here, Simon Birmingham.


Simon Birmingham: There may be some small talk on the side, I suspect, David. I doubt there’ll be much in the meeting itself. But look, David, these are matters, obviously, that that are in the public fora. Scott Morrison can explain his decisions. I can only speak for what I know, and that is that in my time as finance minister, the powers of the finance minister were solely exercised by me.


David Bevan: Is it also the case that if somebody else was exercising those powers, either a secondary health minister or a secondary finance minister or a secondary resources minister, as soon as those powers were exercised, they would have to be exercised through a department. And the department would then have let the other minister know this is really messy stuff, but eventually you’d find out.


Simon Birmingham: Well, indeed. And that’s why I can say with certainty and clarity that powers weren’t exercised, because I obviously continued to engage and fulfil all of the functions in my department, and they kept me abreast of all decisions being made in my portfolio-


David Bevan: Well, you hope so.


Simon Birmingham: If he was still sworn to the portfolio noting that the public reports all relate to a period that goes back to when Mathias Cormann was the finance minister, not me. But if he was still sworn at some subsequent point whilst I was the finance minister, I’m confident that no powers were exercised and that all decisions were made appropriately by me as the finance minister.


Stacey Lee: So is it not concerning to you at all that you’ve just said he may have been also the finance minister while you were in that role, but he didn’t exercise that role if he was. Is it not concerning to you at all that while you held a position, basically your boss also held that same position and you didn’t know about it?


Simon Birmingham: If it were the case, I would certainly prefer to have known, but as I say, I’m not aware as to whether it was the case still by the time I took the portfolio on. I think if we go back to those very early days of the pandemic and particularly in the health portfolio, but there’s some similarities in finance as well. The role of the health minister was largely very similar to in a South Australian context the role of the Police Commissioner, that all of the extraordinary powers were vested in that individual and that person needed to personally sign off on them. And so my recollection there is that the decision to be sworn into the health portfolio was done largely as a contingency as a reserve power, if you like, for should Greg Hunt had been unavailable for some reason, be it incapacity or travel or other reasons and emergency decisions needed to be made at those early stages of the pandemic. There are similar sorts of powers in relation to making emergency financial decisions vested in the finance ministers, and so I could see a logic along similar lines, but I wasn’t, to my recollection, aware that that occurred when Mathias was finance minister. And as I said, if it had continued to be enforced by the time I took on that role, those powers certainly were never used by anybody other than me.


Nikolai Beilharz: And you mentioned that you recall knowing about the health side of things when you were having a discussion with the then prime minister. When you were having that discussion, did at no point someone say, well, we probably better tell everyone that we’re doing this.


Simon Birmingham: Nikolai, these were the very early and extraordinary days of the pandemic. So it was noted in passing, I can’t say that it was a deep topic of discussion because the topics of discussion about closing our international borders, what we were doing with cruise ships, the way we were responding in those early stages with those sorts of dramatic decisions, they were the ones that were taking up the vast majority of time and focus. The administrative points of a statement from the Prime Minister that I’ve had myself sworn so that we have a second signatory if required, was not perhaps seen as a substantive as the decisions that we were taking in relation to the lives of the Australian people and the closure of parts of our economy.


David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, a lot of people might cut the government a lot of slack regarding health and finance, but why the resources portfolio and why is Scott Morrison using those powers to overturn a controversial gas project just before an election which will affect seats that ultimately the Coalition was going to lose?


Simon Birmingham: David, I find that one more curious and a little troubling. It is now clear that those powers were used. Now, at the time, the decision to overturn the so-called PEP 11 exploration license of the north coast of Sydney was made. It was clear, I guess, if you look back at the language that Scott Morrison said that he had made the decision and that he had used the powers available to him to make the decision. But clearly, not many people picked up at the time that that was using powers apparently as resources minister. That particular decision is before the courts at present, and I wasn’t privy to the details of it anyway, but I do find that more curious, troubling and worthy of some explanation.


David Bevan: Well, who’s got to give that explanation?


Simon Birmingham: Well, only the former prime minister, I guess, can do that in terms of the processes that he went through.


David Bevan: So Scott Morrison should front up ASAP, get this out of the way.


Simon Birmingham: I believe he may have done some other media this morning, but I’ve been in transit, so I haven’t heard it.


Stacey Lee: You mentioned there that he the words he used after that decision was that he made the decision, but maybe no one picked up on it at the time. Is it really the role of the Australian public that they should be reading between the lines of what their Prime Minister says to try and work out what cryptically has been said as to who is the minister and how they’re making those decisions?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Stacey, as I just said, I think that exercise of power as resources minister and why there had been any swearing in to that portfolio is worthy of some explanation. I’m not suggesting that day to day Australians going about their business would be studying those statements closely. But certainly project proponents and others deserve to know who’s the decision maker. But I’m sure they were also looking very closely at the decision as they were made and the statements that were made around them.


Stacey Lee: We’ve been talking about the health, the finance and the resources portfolios. Are you aware of any other portfolios when Scott Morrison was prime minister that he also took over?


Simon Birmingham: No.


David Bevan: But somebody needs to ask him though.


Simon Birmingham: I’m sure that question, if it hasn’t been asked in any media this morning, will be asked. David.


David Bevan: The Governor-General’s been put in an awkward position, hasn’t he?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the Governor-General acts on the advice of his or her Prime Minister. That’s the I guess first convention that the Governor-General accords to. And the earliest advice any Governor-General receives from a new Prime Minister is in relation to ministerial arrangements and who they’re swearing in as ministers. If you recall the first few days of this new Government. Anthony Albanese and just three or four other ministers held all of the portfolios across the Government between themselves. And indeed you can go back to Gough Whitlam where he and Lance Barnard I think it was held the entire government portfolios between the two of them-


Stacey Lee: But that’s different because we knew about it.


Simon Birmingham: There are different circumstances that are that apply historically and yes, Stacey, as I said, where decisions such as on resources licences are being made or exploration licences, I think those involved deserve to know clearly who the decision maker is.


David Bevan: Just one technical point. In order for a person to be a government minister, does it have to be in the Government Gazette?


Simon Birmingham: David. I don’t know that. That’s something for the those who manage process and those who focus on some of those technicalities of the Constitution. I’m a policy person who in those days was focused initially at the start of the pandemic on trade and tourism portfolios before taking over the finance portfolio.


David Bevan: Because and that’s something that will need to be explored here as we sort this out, because even you’ve conceded the business with Keith Pitt and the resources portfolio, it’s not a good look. So somebody’s going to have to work out if it’s in order to be a government minister has to be gazetted or was it gazetted? And if it’s not, should it be gazetted? And if it was gazetted, well, why didn’t anybody pick it up or did Scott Morrison hold these portfolios without it being in the gazette? So it’s really messy, isn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, David, there are certainly questions there. And when these things unfold, they likely lead to changes or improvements in process in future in terms of what does or doesn’t have to be in the government gazette around ministerial arrangements. I say others will look at that now and I’d expect that there will be some striking of improved process or arrangements in the future to avoid a repeat of any uncertainty such as what this has created. I can only speak for what I was aware of at the time, and that was, as I say, particularly in relation to health, which was very much a contingency. To the best of my knowledge, it was a contingency never used and certainly in relation to the finance portfolio which I ultimately held, if the same contingency arrangements had been put in place there, they were never operationalised or used during my time in the portfolio. I was the sole decision maker in that time.


David Bevan: That you’re aware of.


Simon Birmingham: No, I’m confident, David, that in my time as finance minister, I was the sole decision maker.


David Bevan: Thank you very much for your time, Simon Birmingham.


Simon Birmingham: My pleasure.