Australia announces inquiry into Morrison’s secret ministries

Move comes after solicitor general said ex-PM’s actions were ‘inconsistent’ with practices of responsible government.

Former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison wearing a fask mask with his country's flag emblazoned on it.
Scott Morrison said last week that the COVID-19 pandemic was an extraordinary time and he secretly took on the ministries because he felt responsibility for the nation was his alone [File: Issei Kato/Reuters]

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has announced an independent inquiry into his predecessor Scott Morrison secretly appointing himself to multiple ministries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Albanese announced the move on Tuesday after Solicitor General Stephen Donaghue concluded that while Morrison’s appointments were legal, they “fundamentally undermined” responsible government.

“Our democracy is precious,” Albanese wrote on Twitter. “Australians deserve to know who is responsible for making decisions on their behalf.”

Morrison, who stepped down as leader of the Liberal Party after losing a general election in May, has faced a barrage of criticism from the Labor government and his own party after it was revealed he was secretly sworn in to ministries without telling Parliament or his cabinet, an unprecedented assumption of power.

In the written advice, the solicitor general said this was “inconsistent with the conventions and practices that form an essential part of the system of responsible government prescribed by the … Constitution”.

“That is because it is impossible for Parliament and the public to hold Ministers accountable for the proper administration of particular departments if the identity of the Ministers who have been appointed to administer those departments is not publicised,” he said.

Three ministers were unaware Morrison shared power over their ministries of home affairs, treasury and finance until last week. Morrison said he only intervened in one ministry, resources, to block an offshore gas project. The decision is now being challenged in court by the resources company.

Albanese told reporters in Canberra that the advice from the solicitor general was a “very clear criticism” of the implications for Australia’s parliamentary democracy.

The prime minister said his cabinet had agreed “there will be need for a further inquiry … to examine what happened and how it happened”.

The inquiry “will need to examine what the implications are for what occurred and whether there are any legal issues that are raised”. It will also “look at future reform, how we can ensure that this doesn’t happen in the future,” he said, adding that Morrison’s behaviour was “extraordinary”.

“He does need to be held to account for it,” Albanese said.

There was no immediate comment from Morrison’s office.

The former prime minister said last week the coronavirus pandemic was an extraordinary time and he secretly took on the ministries because he felt the responsibility for the nation was his alone.

Australia has a cabinet-based system that relies on a group of ministers governing.

Bernard Keane, the political editor at the independent news website, said Morrison had secretly given himself extraordinary amounts of power. The fact that the moves were legal shows how vague the Australian constitution is, Keane told Al Jazeera.

“This is a document that doesn’t even mention the fact that there is a prime minister. So minutiae like whether you can be one minister or two or several is certainly not covered. But the sheer breadth of the portfolios gives you an indication of how extraordinary the powers were. He held the treasury portfolio, he held the finance portfolio, which deals with internal government spending authority. He held the home affairs portfolio, which is responsible for national security, policing and immigration, as well as the health portfolio, during the time of the pandemic,” said Keane.

“So Scott Morrison had compiled an extraordinary and extraordinarily long list of powers and he had done so in secret and this potentially could have been used to spend money, to undertake national security measures, border protection measures as well as measures in relation to the pandemic.”

Morrison’s appointments were approved by Governor General David Hurley, the ceremonial head of state, but there was no public swearing-in ceremony.

Donaghue, the solicitor general, said Hurley’s actions were consistent with convention. “The Governor-General has no discretion to refuse to accept the Prime Minister’s advice in relation to such an appointment,” he wrote.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies