Mark Dreyfus MP

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PM's Palmer Aid A $1 Million Folly

16 August 2021

The Morrison Government chose a side by throwing the whole weight of the Commonwealth Government behind Clive Palmer, hoping to convince the High Court to strike down the McGowan Government’s border measures and hand Palmer a victory.

MARK DREYFUS QC MP
SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL
SHADOW MINISTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
MEMBER FOR ISAACS

PM’S PALMER AID A $1 MILLION FOLLY

When Clive Palmer launched a constitutional challenge against Western Australia’s COVID-19 border measures in June last year, then attorney-general Christian Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison had a choice: they could stay out of the proceedings entirely, intervene in support of WA or intervene in support of Palmer.

Even in June 2020, it was clear that the McGowan Government’s border measures were saving lives. It was also clear that those measures were going to be instrumental in keeping WA businesses open, kids in school and countless people in jobs.

So the people of Western Australia had a lot to lose if Palmer’s challenge was successful.

And yet, as every West Australian knows, Porter and Morrison inexplicably chose to intervene in support of Palmer – a former life member of the Liberal National Party and current billionaire who was hell-bent on tearing down WA’s border measures.

Porter and Morrison were not just offering Palmer moral support.

And they did not intervene, as Morrison’s spin doctors are now trying to suggest, to make dispassionate constitutional arguments.

The Morrison Government chose a side by throwing the whole weight of the Commonwealth Government behind Palmer, hoping to convince the High Court to strike down the McGowan Government’s border measures and hand Palmer a victory.

It is all there in black and white on the official notice of intervention: “The Attorney-General intervenes in support of the position of the plaintiffs.” The plaintiffs, of course, were Clive Palmer and his company Mineralogy Pty Ltd.

The Morrison Government assembled a huge team of lawyers.

  • In fact, the team was so large we now know it cost:
  • $771,685 (excluding GST) in legal fees for solicitors from the Australian Government Solicitors’ office;
  • $138,975 (excluding GST) on external lawyers;
  • $66,805 (excluding GST) on the Commonwealth’s own expert witnesses;
  • $5,000 (mostly excluding GST) on travel; and
  • $7,430 (including GST) on hotel rooms.

Perhaps most egregiously, the Morrison Government paid over $40,000 to cover some of Palmer’s own legal costs.

In total, Morrison and Porter’s folly cost taxpayers more than $1 million.

A review of the court file suggests that the Morrison Government had been even more enthusiastic about tearing down Western Australia’s borders than Palmer.

On behalf of the Morrison Government, Porter made 13 separate submissions to the Federal Court. Palmer only made 6.

Representing Porter and the Morrison Government, the Commonwealth Solicitor-General spent hours and hours cross-examining public health experts in an effort to undermine WA’s case.

Until finally, in the face of overwhelming political pressure from the Australian Labor Party, the McGowan Government and – most importantly – the people of WA, Morrison reluctantly directed Porter to pull out of the case.

But Morrison and Porter couldn’t take back any of the submissions they had made in support of Palmer’s case, or undo the hours and hours of cross-examination. The damage was done.

As Federal Court Judge Darryl Rangiah said in his August 2020 judgment, “[t]he prejudice to Western Australia has not been caused by the withdrawal, but by the Commonwealth having intervened in support of the Palmer party's case in the first place.”

And now we know that “the prejudice to Western Australia” cost Australian taxpayers over $1 million.

Fortunately, despite the best efforts of Morrison and Porter’s team of lawyers, the High Court ultimately upheld WA's border measures.

As a result, WA remains one of the most successful jurisdictions in the world at keeping COVID-19 at bay.

The Federal Labor Party will continue to do everything we can to support Mark McGowan, his government and the people of WA to keep it that way.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Monday, 16 August 2021.