Former Australian PM slammed by inquiry into secret appointments  

By on 30/11/2022 | Updated on 30/11/2022
Former Australian prime minister waves to the press while walking down Downing Street, London.
Scott Morrison has conceded that in hindsight the appointments were unnecessary and has apologised to former ministerial colleagues “for any offence”. Photo by Tim Hammond / No 10 Downing Street via Flickr

The decision of former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison to appoint himself to five additional departments in secret was “unnecessary” and “corrosive of trust in government”, an inquiry has found.

Former High Court justice Virginia Bell was instructed to carry out the inquiry by current prime minister Anthony Albanese in August after it came to light that Morrison had been appointed to administer the health, finance, science and industry, treasury and home affairs portfolios during the coronavirus pandemic.

Though some ministers and senior officials knew about the appointments – which gave Morrison ultimate decision-making powers in the relevant departments – they were made without the knowledge of parliament, the public and in some cases the ministers leading the departments in question. This included then treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who had been one of Morrison’s closest confidents.

Albanese – whose party won the federal election in May ousting the Liberal/National Coalition latterly headed by Morrison after 13 years in power – called the events an “unprecedented trashing of democracy”.

Read more: Government reform on the cards in Australia after revelations that ex-PM gave himself additional powers in secret

In her report, Bell said she found it “troubling” that Phil Gaetjens, then secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) “did not take up the issue of the secrecy surrounding [the appointments] with Mr Morrison and firmly argue for their disclosure”. However, she said the responsibility for secrecy resided with Morrison.

Bell’s recommendations focus on ensuring transparency should any such appointment be made in future. They include such appointments being published in the Commonwealth Gazette by law and publishing details of ministers and the division of responsibilities between them on government websites.

Albanese welcomed the report’s findings and said his government would implement all of the recommendations.

“The unprecedented and inexcusable actions of the former prime minister were emblematic of the culture of secrecy in which the previous government operated,” he said, adding that “the quick implementation of these recommendations will ensure that the Australian public can have full confidence that this breach of trust will never happen again.”

Additional appointments ‘unnecessary’

Morrison’s appointments to the five ministries were made between March 2020 and May 2021. It has also been revealed that the prime minister asked for advice about appointment to a sixth portfolio – the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment – but opted not to proceed.

Bell’s report states that senior ministers recalled that the justification for the appointments to the health and finance ministries was to ensure that Morrison could exercise powers should the relevant ministers become incapacitated and that Gaetjens viewed the appointments as an appropriate safeguard.

However, while Bell acknowledged the appointments were made “under the extreme pressure of responding to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic”, she said they were unnecessary because should the health and finance ministers have been unable to carry out their duties, “Morrison could have been authorised to act as minister… in a matter of minutes”.

Read more: Australian ethics index reveals drop in public trust in government

Bell found that Morrison’s appointments to the treasury and home affairs departments “had little if any connection to the pandemic” and were administered “to give [Morrison] the capacity to exercise particular statutory powers”. She found that Morrison’s appointment to the industry and science department was made to enable him to consider applications concerning a petroleum exploration licence (PEP-11) off the New South Wales coast, which he ultimately blocked.

She found that briefs prepared by officials in the PM&C noted that it was “somewhat unusual” for the prime minister to be appointed to other departments. She also noted that while Gaetjens “considered that Mr Morrison had been made aware” of the risk of legal challenge before he decided on the PEP-11 applications, that he “did not seek to speak with Mr Morrison and advise him in stronger terms than those used in the brief against being appointed [to the industry and science department]”.

Morrison did not agree to be interviewed by Bell in person but informed her through his lawyers that he “considered it necessary, in the national interest, to lawfully ensure that there would be no gap in the exercise of [powers related to ongoing matters of national security] if required, so as to guarantee the continuity and effective operation of government”.

Bell said this concern was “not easy to understand” given that there were other ministers who could have acted had departmental leaders been incapacitated.

Bell also brushed off Morrison’s reasons for keeping the appointments secret. He said he did not make them known to ministers because he did not wish them “to be second guessing themselves” or to the public to avoid them being “misinterpreted and misunderstood”.

Though Bell found that Morrison had only exercised statutory powers through the appointments in the case of the PEP-11 applications and that the implications of the appointments were therefore “limited”, she said “the lack of disclosure… was apt to undermine public confidence in government”.

She also highlighted that some of the appointments meant Morrison could override a minister if they exercised their powers in a way in which he disagreed or if they failed to make a decision that he wanted made, and that he could dismiss a minister if he considered their actions were not conducive to the national interest.

“In terms of the functioning of the departments this was as Dr Gordon de Brouwer, secretary for public sector reform, observes ‘extremely irregular’”, she said.

She concluded that given that parliament was not informed of any of the appointments, “it was unable to hold Mr Morrison to account” on behalf of electors, and agreed with the solicitor-general that the principles of responsible government were “fundamentally undermined”.

Morrison defends move amid fast-moving COVID-19 pandemic

The Sydney Morning Herald reported comments by the former treasurer and deputy Liberal leader Josh Frydenberg that he did not think there “was any reason” for Morrison to take on the treasury portfolio and that “the fact he did take it, and it was not made transparent to me and others, was wrong and profoundly disappointing. It was extreme overreach”.  

Morrison insisted he had acted in the national interest and said that he is “pleased that this matter has now concluded” – despite it being understood that Albanese is considering further sanction.

Morrison previously said that the arrangements were “a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ safeguard” during the pandemic. “Things were moving very quickly at the time. None of us are perfect. There was no sense of bad faith in it,” he said.

He conceded that in hindsight the appointments were unnecessary and apologised to former ministerial colleagues “for any offence”.

Read more: Australian federal agencies told to expect capability reviews as government steps up reform plan 

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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