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

By on 17/08/2022 | Updated on 17/08/2022
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison sits behind a desk at the COP26 conference in Glasgow.
Photo by Doug Peters / UK Government via Flickr

It has been revealed that former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison secretly appointed himself head of five ministries during his time in office, in what his successor called an “unprecedented trashing of democracy”.

Between March 2020 and May 2021, Morrison appointed himself to the health, finance, industry, science, energy and resources, home affairs and treasury portfolios, giving him ultimate decision-making powers in these areas. This was done without the public’s knowledge and in some cases without alerting the existing minister, who remained unaware they were sharing the portfolio with the PM. This included then treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who had been one of Morrison’s closest confidants.

Australian ministers are usually publicly sworn in by the governor general with cameras present, and their appointments announced to the parliament where it is officially recorded. However, no record exists for any of the five appointments.

It is understood the governor general, David Hurley swore Morrison in as minister of the portfolios based on Morrison’s own advice.

Incumbent PM Anthony Albanese – whose party won the federal election in May ousting the Liberal/National Coalition latterly headed by Morrison after 13 years in power – said on Tuesday he was awaiting legal advice on any possible ramifications of Morrison’s actions and that he was “open to reforms and suggestions” to prevent such an occurrence happening in future.

“I cannot conceive of the mindset that has created this… the way the government has functioned that has led to a point where that occurs and how a cabinet allows that to happen,” Albanese said.

Morrison sets out his defence

Morrison released a lengthy statement on Monday in which he described the arrangements “as a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ safeguard” during the coronavirus pandemic. He said in hindsight they were unnecessary and apologised to former ministerial colleagues “for any offence”.

“Things were moving very quickly at the time. None of us are perfect. There was no sense of bad faith in it,” he said separately.

“They were unprecedented times and as a result they were very unconventional times,” he told Sydney radio station, 2GB. “They are very complex, detailed issues in governance… I put in place a set of arrangements that ensured all decisions could be made instantaneously. That is the real-time crisis we were dealing with.”

He said he had only used the additional powers once to overrule his then-resources minister to block a petroleum exploration licence off the NSW Central Coast, which he admitted was unrelated to the pandemic.

When asked why he had kept the appointments secret, he said the decisions were not a matter for cabinet, only for the relevant ministers, and that it was an oversight that then finance minister Mathias Cormann had not been made aware.

When Morrison first addressed the revelations earlier this week, only three of the five appointments had become public knowledge after the publication of a book on his premiership by two News Corp journalists. When it came to light hours later that he had also assumed control over two further ministries, he claimed he could not recall doing so.

He faced a barrage of questions during a press conference on Wednesday in which he reiterated that responsibility for the decisions was his.

Now a Liberal party backbencher, Morrison is facing calls to resign from parliament including from former home affairs minister Karen Andrews, who said she had not known the PM had assumed control over her portfolio. “This is totally unacceptable, for a prime minister to behave in this manner undermines everything that a federal government constitutionally should stand for,” she said.

Peter Dutton, who now leads the Liberal party having been defence minister under Morrison, defended the former PM’s actions and accused Albanese of attempting to make “political capital” over the situation. He said he had not known about the appointments and that he would seek legal advice before making further comment.   

Former deputy prime minister Michael McCormack also defended Morrison, describing criticism of his actions “unfair”.

Read more: New secretary of Australia’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet named

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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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