Scott Morrison‘s decision to secretly take on extra ministerial portfolios has been labelled as corrosive of trust in government.
A report by former High Court judge Virginia Bell into the multiple ministries found the secrecy surrounding the appointments he took on as prime minister was ‘apt to undermine public confidence in government’.
‘Once the appointments became known, the secrecy with which they had been surrounded was corrosive of trust in government,’ the report said.
‘Given that the parliament was not informed of any of the appointments, it was unable to hold Mr Morrison to account in his capacity as minister administering any of these five departments.’
The actions of the former PM were ‘extraordinary and unprecedented’, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Friday.
He continued: ‘They were wrong. A cabinet can’t function when some members are complicit in secrecy. That is a characteristic of the Morrison government.’
The actions of the former PM were ‘extraordinary and unprecedented’, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said at a press conference in Canberra to release the report into former PM Scott Morrison’s appointment of himself to multiple cabinet positions
‘I want to thank Justice Virginia Bell for the extraordinary work that her and her team have done with this report.’
Justice Bell recommended six changes to be made following the report, including implementing legislation requiring public notifications of the appointment of ministers.
She also recommended publishing details of which ministers were appointed to administer departments and outlining different responsibilities when more than one minister was appointed to the same department.
Mr Albanese said he would recommend cabinet implement all six recommendations.
‘The quick implementation of these recommendations will ensure that the Australian public can have full confidence that this breach of trust will never happen again,’ he said.
‘The unprecedented and inexcusable actions of the former prime minister were emblematic of the culture of secrecy in which the previous government operated.’
Mr Morrison appointed himself minister of the departments of health, finance, industry, science, energy and resources, treasury and home affairs, without the knowledge of most of the appointed ministers during the Covid-19 period
Mr Morrison appointed himself minister of the departments of health, finance, industry, science, energy and resources, treasury and home affairs, without the knowledge of most of the appointed ministers.
Ms Bell was asked by inquire into the portfolios issue after the solicitor-general found Mr Morrison’s action had ‘fundamentally undermined’ the principles of responsible government.
Mr Albanese asked for the inquiry to explore how and why the action was taken and who knew about it.
The solicitor-general found it was ‘impossible for the parliament to hold ministers to account for the administration of departments if it does not know which ministers are responsible for which departments’.
Mr Albanese did not offer a direct opinion when asked whether Mr Morrison should resign from the parliament.
‘I think that a whole lot of people have got to look at their behaviour in this, Scott Morrison clearly felt the confidence to be able to not consider that he was a part of a democratic government, not [feel] that he was bound by the conventions in which parliament and government functions. Others were aware of this as well,’ he said.
He also refused to say whether Mr Morrison should be censured by the parliament, saying his cabinet will consider Ms Bell’s report in more detail next week.
The prime minister agreed Mr Morrison had misled the parliament ‘every day he was standing there’.
Former treasurer Josh Frydenberg was one of those whose ministry Mr Morrison also appointed himself to, in May, 2021
Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley dismissed reports the coalition had determined to downplay the severity of Mr Morrison’s actions and said it would support closing the loophole that was exploited.
The health and finance portfolio roles began in March 2020, while he started as industry minister in April 2021, and home affairs and treasury in May 2021.
He justified the action by saying the only time he used his extra powers was in vetoing the PEP11 resource exploration project off the NSW coast.
Mr Morrison intended the powers to be used only in extreme circumstances ‘due to incapacity or in the national interest’.
In a Facebook post on Friday afternoon, Mr Morrison responded to the Bell report.
‘I was pleased to assist the inquiry with six separate and comprehensive responses to matters raised with me and my legal representatives by Hon. Virginia Bell,’ Mr Morrison posted.
‘In relation to the broader matters that were subject of the Inquiry I note that at all times as Prime Minister I sought to exercise my responsibilities in a manner that would best advance and protect Australia’s national interests and the welfare of the Australian people.
Mr Morrison again cited the exceptional circumstances presented by the Covid-19 pandemic was the reason for this actions.
‘These decisions were taken during an extremely challenging period, where there was a need for considerable urgency. I note that the criticisms of my decisions have been made after the event and with the benefit of this perspective.
‘I also note that as Prime Minister my awareness of issues regarding national security and the national interest was broader than that known to individual Ministers and certainly to the Inquiry. This limits the ability for third parties to draw definitive conclusions on such matters.’
Mr Morrison’s former treasurer Josh Frydenberg revealed to journalist Niki Savva he saw no reason why the ex-PM had appointed himself to his portfolio in 2021, and was yet to apologise for doing so.
‘The fact he did take it, and it was not made transparent to me and others, was wrong and profoundly disappointing. It was extreme overreach,’ Mr Frydenberg said.