“This has been government by deception,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters on Tuesday. He accused his predecessor of “trashing democracy” by taking on multiple government jobs and not informing the public.
Morrison, who is still a lawmaker but was replaced as prime minister during an election in May, was appointed as minister of health, finance, home affairs, treasury and industry between March 2020 and May 2021, Albanese said. These were all significant cabinet roles, which already had ministers in place — and Morrison gained extensive additional powers by being sworn in as a minister for those departments.
Some of Morrison’s colleagues have expressed outrage and surprise stating they had no idea they were sharing their jobs with their boss.
Albanese said Morrison’s secret appointments had been revealed following an investigation, and that it was not clear whether Morrison retained his positions until he was voted out earlier this year.
“It is completely extraordinary that these appointments were kept secret by the Morrison government from the Australian people,” Albanese said in Canberra. “It has undermined our democracy.”
In a lengthy post on Facebook on Tuesday, Morrison defended his actions, citing the coronavirus pandemic and economic recession in Australia in 2020 and stating that he acted in good faith in a crisis.
“These were extraordinary times and they required extraordinary measures to respond,” he said, adding that the risk of his ministers becoming “incapacitated, sick” or unable to carry out their work was “very real” during the pandemic.
“As Prime Minister I considered it necessary to put in place safeguards,” he said. “… I took the precaution of being given authority to administer various departments of state should the need arise due to incapacity of a Minister or in the national interest.” He added that he considered such actions to be “prudent” and “responsible.”
“In hindsight these arrangements were unnecessary,” Morrison said, adding that “there was a lot going on at the time.”
He underscored that he did not seek to ever act “in a co-Minister capacity” and used the additional powers linked to the jobs only on one occasion in April 2021 to overturn the approval of a controversial gas project off the coast of New South Wales. He said that particular decision was made “in the national interest” and was “the only matter I involved myself directly with in this or any other Department.”
Former minister Keith Pitt, who had responsibility for the gas project and led the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources at the time, told Australian media he was unaware Morrison had joint oversight over his ministerial portfolio.
Another minister in Morrison’s government, Karen Andrews, who served as home affairs or interior minister, told Australian radio that she also did not know that she was sharing her job.
“The Australian people have been let down, they have been betrayed,” she said, calling for Morrison to resign as a lawmaker. “For a former prime minister to have behaved in that manner, to secretly be sworn into other portfolios … it’s absolutely unacceptable.”
Australian newspapers highlighted the outrage, while on social media the actions spawned memes and jokes about Morrison’s multiple jobs.
“Scott Morrison couldn’t do his own job properly, and it turns out he didn’t trust his other Ministers to do theirs either,” Melbourne lawmaker and Australian Green Party leader Adam Bandt wrote on Twitter. Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull also lambasted the “sinister secret state appointments” and said any officials who were aware “showed a grave lack of respect for and understanding of democratic governance.”
We should be very concerned that a PM, an AG, the GG and apparently their officials thought Morrison’s sinister secret state appointments were legitimate. Did anyone object? Resign jn protest? All showed a grave lack of respect for and understanding of democratic governance.
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) August 15, 2022
Anne Twomey, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Sydney, wrote that the lack of transparency could impact the institutions of government.
The exercise of additional government powers “should be notified to parliament and formally published so members of the public can know who is entitled to exercise particular powers,” she wrote in an opinion piece. “It is inappropriate for such matters to be kept secret — especially if it is kept secret from the Cabinet and from the minister who was formally allocated responsibility for a portfolio by the governor-general,” she added.
Albanese told the nation that he would be seeking legal advice from the country’s solicitor general about Morrison’s actions to determine next steps.