Each of the five times former prime minister Scott Morrison secretly appointed himself to ministerial portfolios without alerting the Australian public were done legally, Australia’s solicitor-general has found.
On Tuesday, prime minister Anthony Albanese released the findings of a legal inquiry into the nature of Morrison’s secretive self-appointments, which broadly found Morrison had “validly” sworn himself into various ministerial portfolios over the last two years, even if it did “fundamentally” undermine responsible government.
The inquiry, conducted by Australia’s solicitor-general Stephen Donaghue, suggested the government move to strengthen rules that require government appointments to be disclosed to the public.
“The end result is that, to the extent that the public and the parliament are not informed of appointments that have been made under s 64 of the constitution, the principles of responsible government are fundamentally undermined,” Donaghue wrote.
“Neither the people nor the parliament can hold a minister accountable for the exercise (or, just as importantly, for the non-exercise) of particular statutory powers if they are not aware that the minister has those powers,” he wrote.
“Nor can they hold the correct ministers accountable for any other actions, or inactions, of departments.”
Shortly after the report was released, Albanese told reporters that his government would move to open a second investigation, “not a political inquiry”, set to be led by a legal expert. In the meantime, he called on Morrison to apologise.
“Scott Morrison owes the Australian people an apology for undermining our parliamentary democracy system of government that we have, something that can’t be taken for granted,” Albanese said.
“It’s one thing to see this as an issue between him and Josh Frydenberg or other individuals, he misses the point here completely. This is about the Australian people. That’s who, at the end of the day, we are accountable for,” he said.
The first two of Morrison’s five secret ministerial appointments were revealed last weekend, after a book excerpt published in The Australian revealed that Morrison had sworn himself in as joint health minister in March 2020.
According to the report, Morrison did so for fears new powers afforded to the former health minister, Greg Hunt, by an emergency trigger in the Biosecurity Act, would effectively give Hunt control over the whole country.
The changes meant that Hunt could issue orders at odds with “any other law”, and couldn’t be stopped by parliament. Morrison wasn’t satisfied, according to the reporting. He wanted more “checks and balances”, and believed that one minister shouldn’t be able to wield that much power.
In the same story, it was reported that Morrison had sworn himself in as joint finance minister alongside Mathias Cormann in March 2020. Throughout the week, it would later be revealed by Albanese himself that Morrison had also sworn himself in to oversee the resources, treasury, and home affairs portfolios.
“I cannot conceive of how a cabinet allows that to happen. I also cannot conceive of how a cabinet committee of one is established,” Albanese said at the time.
“And that’s an issue that we’ve been raising for a period of time. I also cannot conceive of the way that this Prime Minister, when he was in charge, consistently avoided scrutiny,” he said.
Fronting reporters, opposition leader Peter Dutton came out in defence of the former prime minister, saying Morrison made the calls that he did in “war-like” conditions, and reduced Albanese’s comments on the fallout as nothing more than “head-kicker” Labor politics.
Morrison’s Liberal party colleagues, though, were less sympathetic. Former home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, came out to call for Morrison’s resignation, after it was revealed that he made himself a joint minister of her department. She said she had no idea, and that the move “undermines the integrity of government”.
The sentiment was shared by the Greens, who said Morrison’s secret appointments show the “urgent need” for a fully-resourced and independent federal corruption commission.
Greens senator and justice spokesperson, David Shoebridge, said in a statement that Morrison’s actions made for a “seriously corruption-prone environment”.
“If you wanted a rolled-gold reason for why the parliament must urgently establish a Federal Independent Commission Against Corruption, then Scott Morrison has just given us five of them,” Shoebridge said.
“Secret Ministries are an attack on the fundamentals of parliamentary accountability. To put it simply, Parliament can’t do its job and hold a Minister to account if we don’t know the Minister even exists.”
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