An independent inquiry will be held into the secret ministerial roles adopted by former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison before he was voted out of office three months ago.
New Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the inquiry as he made the rare move of releasing the solicitor-general’s advice to the government on the matter.
“The advice is a very clear criticism and critique of the implications that are there for our democratic system,” Albanese said, describing the events as “highly extraordinary and unprecedented.”
Albanese, who defeated Morrison in a federal election in May, has been scathing of his predecessor, who appointed himself to five senior government portfolios – including health; finance; treasury and home affairs; and industry, science and resources – between 2020 and 2021, mostly without the knowledge of the ministers who held each role.
The solicitor-general found Morrison’s secret appointment to the portfolios was “valid” but “inconsistent with the conventions and practices” of a responsible government.
The revelations of the secret porfolios emerged last week in excerpts of a book published about Morrison’s time in office, based on interviews the former leader gave to the authors.
Morrison defended his actions in a lengthy Facebook post last week and on Tuesday repeated his claim that he thought it was “prudent” to assign himself powers in case the responsible minister became incapacitated during the pandemic.
“I accept that many Australians will not agree with, accept or understand all the decisions I made during those difficult times,” he said in the statement posted to Facebook Tuesday.
“I can only state that I took the decisions I did as Prime Minister with the best of intentions, in good faith.”
Some of his former colleagues were reportedly furious they hadn’t been informed of what Australian media has referred to as a “power grab.”
Former home affairs minister Karen Andrews, who she said she wasn’t aware Morrison had appointed himself to her job, urged him to quit politics. “He needs to resign and he needs to leave Parliament,” Andrews told Sky News last week.
Morrison has so far resisted calls to step down.
Few details are known about the inquiry and its scope but Albanese said it would be headed by an “eminent person with a legal background.” It wouldn’t be a political inquiry, he said, but “there are clearly a whole raft of questions which have been raised.”
Some of the questions the government wants answered include “why this occurred, how it occurred? Who knew about it occurring? What the implications are for our parliamentary system? Are there any legal implications behind decisions that were made? How can we avoid this happening again?” the prime minister said.
Morrison is known to have used the power on at least one occasion, to reject an application for a license to explore for gas off the coast of New South Wales. The company involved, BPH Energy, is seeking a judicial review of the government’s decision to reject the application.
Albanese said Morrison’s decision to take on new roles may have had other, as yet unknown, consequences.
The former prime minister “was the health minister and the industry minister at a time when we’re considering a mRNA vaccine manufacturer in Australia,” Albanese said.
And he said Morrison may have influenced funding decisions within the departments he held.
“I know it’s certainly not normal practice that the prime minister was appointed as the final decision maker for grants in excess of $800 million for a manufacturing fund. Now that is also in in my view, something that is an issue for accountability,” Albanese said.
Morrison makes light of controversy
The controversy took on a life of its own on social media, where users photoshopped Morrison’s face onto images of people performing different roles. The general theme was that Morrison was everywhere, especially where you may least expect him.
Morrison appeared to lean into the trend by commenting on the images then creating some of his own, including one showing his face superimposed on an image of a comedy troupe.
“It’s been fun joining in on all the memes,” Morrison said in the accompanying post. “But there are so many now I can’t keep up. As Aussies we can always have a chuckle at ourselves.”
However, Albanese made it clear he was unamused by Morrison’s attempt to brush criticism aside.
“This undermining of the parliamentary system of government, of the whole Westminster system and our democratic traditions of accountability, are something that aren’t a laughing matter,” he said last week.
And on Tuesday, Albanese said Morrison should be apologizing to the entire country.
“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.”