Former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has spoken for the first time after it was revealed that he was secretly sworn into five minister roles, including health, finance, treasury, home affairs and industry.
The former prime minister said his decision was a precaution during the middle of the pandemic and that he would have made it public if he needed to use the powers granted.
“Sometimes we forget what was happening two years ago and the situation we were dealing with. It was an unconventional time and an unprecedented time,” he told Sydney radio station 2GB.
“Boris Johnson almost died one night. We had ministers go down with COVID.”
Morrison’s Unprecedented Move
Morrison’s defence came after a report by The Australian alleged he secretly took on the health and finance portfolios when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Australia in March 2020.
According to the newspaper, the unprecedented move by the former prime minister was due to the concern that he would have to hand over the control of the country to former Health Minister Greg Hunt if the government invoked emergency measures under biosecurity laws.
The Australian also alleged Morrison wanted to ensure that he could administer powers given to former health and finance ministers in the case they were incapacitated by the virus and that the government could implement the biggest fiscal stimulus in Australia’s history.
Additionally, news.com.au reported that Morrison also swore himself in as resources minister and used the power to kill a gas project off the coast of New South Wales (NSW) that former minister Keith Pitt had previously approved, while the Sydney Morning Herald reported he was also sworn into home affairs and treasury.
The online news outlet said the incident was unrelated to the pandemic. Moreover, it mentioned that Pitt had no knowledge of Morrison’s decision and was shocked when learning about the fact in December 2021.
Additional reports emerged that Morrison was sworn into other ministerial roles after an administrative arrangements order for the social services portfolio was found to have been signed by him and Governor-General David Hurley on June 28, 2021.
When asked about the rationale behind the actions, the former prime minister called them “a two key approach.”
“We had to take some extraordinary measures to put safeguards in place,” he said.
“Fortunately, none of these, in the case of the finance and health portfolios, were ever required to be used.
“The powers in those portfolios, they weren’t overseen by the cabinet. The ministers in both cases had powers that few if any, ministers in our federation’s history had.”
However, the former minister denied that he was sworn into the social services portfolio.
“No, not to my knowledge, no,” he said. “I don’t recall that, but I mean, as I said, there were some administrative issues done. I don’t dispute that.
“I’m happy if there are other (portfolios) to be out there.”
Furthermore, Morrison said he took all the actions to make sure that the “buck stopped with the prime minister” since he had no legal powers to order a minister to make a particular decision directly.
“If I wished to be the decision maker, then I had to take the steps that I took,” he said of his decision to overturn the former resources minister’s approval of a controversial NSW gas project, PEP-11.
“People know where the buck stops, and the buck stops with the prime minister. I sought to be the decision maker on that issue because of its importance.”
Finally, Morrison said it was an oversight when he failed to inform former finance minister Mathias Cormann about his swearing into the finance portfolio, thinking the information had been passed on through offices.
“It was regrettable … but things were moving quickly at the time,” he said.
Current Government’s Response
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the incident was quite extraordinary and that what happened in the federal cabinet at the time was not in line with the Westminster system of government.
“The people of Australia were kept in the dark as to what the ministerial arrangements were—it’s completely unacceptable,” he told reporters in Melbourne.
“We have a non-presidential system of government in this country, but what we had from Scott Morrison is a centralisation of power, overriding of ministerial decisions and all done in secret.”
As more details about the incident emerged, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet inquired into the legality of Morrison’s leadership arrangements.
After learning that Governor-General David Hurley was aware of Morrison’s actions, Albanese declined to express his support for the governor-general directly.
“The governor-general’s job is to take the advice of the government of the day,” he told the ABC. “I don’t intend to pass judgement.”
A spokesperson for the governor-general said Hurley followed processes consistent with the constitution when he appointed Morrison to the additional minister roles.
“The appointments were made consistently with section 64 of the Constitution,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
“It is not uncommon for ministers to be appointed to administer departments other than their portfolio responsibility.
“These appointments do not require a swearing-in ceremony. The governor-general signs an administrative instrument on the advice of the prime minister.”
The reactions from the opposition have been mixed, with the National Party of Australia leader David Littleproud and Opposition leader Peter Dutton saying they did not know of the former prime minister’s actions, despite them being ministers in the Morrison government.
However, the former Home Affairs minister Karen Andrews has called for Morrison to resign from parliament.
“The Australian people have been let down, they have been betrayed,” Andrews told AAP.
“For a former prime minister to have behaved in that manner, to secretly be sworn into other portfolios, undermines the Westminster system, it’s absolutely unacceptable.
“If there were reasons for the prime minister to be sworn into other portfolios, then they should have been made public, whereas it’s been made public now by default.”
Andrews noted that she had not been informed that Morrison had been sworn into her portfolio by the prime minister himself, the Prime Minister’s Office or the department secretary.
“I have absolutely no knowledge … if any of those people knew, they did not tell me,” she said.