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Australia's former prime minister Scott Morrison defends secretly taking extra powers

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison talks about the situation in Ukraine at a press conference in Sydney, Feb. 23, 2022.
Rick Rycroft
/
AP
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison talks about the situation in Ukraine at a press conference in Sydney, Feb. 23, 2022.

CANBERRA, Australia — Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Tuesday accused his predecessor Scott Morrison of "trashing democracy" after revealing that while Morrison was in power, he took on five ministerial roles without the knowledge of most other lawmakers or the public.

Albanese said Morrison had been operating in secret, keeping the Australian people in the dark and misleading Parliament over who was in charge of what portfolios.

"This has been government by deception," Albanese said.

Adding to revelations first detailed over the weekend by News Corp. media, Albanese said that between March 2020 and May 2021, Morrison was appointed minister of health, finance, home affairs, treasury and industry — moves which appeared to have given Morrison equal powers to the ministers already appointed to those positions.

"It is completely extraordinary that these appointments were kept secret by the Morrison government from the Australian people," Albanese told reporters in Canberra.

Speaking on Sydney radio station 2GB, Morrison defended taking on the extra portfolios, saying they were a safeguard during the coronavirus pandemic and that he would have made the appointments public had he needed to use the powers involved.

"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," Morrison told the radio station.

He pointed to the coronavirus hospitalization of the then-British prime minister.

"Boris Johnson almost died one night," Morrison said. "We had ministers go down with COVID."

Morrison used his additional powers on at least one occasion, to overturn a decision by former minister Keith Pitt to approve a contentious gas project off the New South Wales coast.

Pitt said in a statement he was unaware Morrison had joint oversight over his ministerial portfolio and that he stands by the decisions he made at the time.

In a more detailed account published on Facebook later Tuesday, Morrison wrote that the gas project was the only matter he got directly involved with and that "I believe I made the right decision in the national interest."

Morrison said that "for any offense to my colleagues, I apologize."

But Karen Andrews, who served as home affairs minister under Morrison, said Morrison never told her that he was also being appointed to the portfolio. She said Morrison, who remains in Parliament on the opposition benches, should resign.

"The Australian people have been let down, they have been betrayed," she said. "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."

Albanese said he was seeking an opinion from the solicitor-general as to the legality of some of Morrison's moves, including on the gas project, and expected to get that on Monday.

"This is a sad indictment of not just Mr. Morrison, but all those Cabinet colleagues of his who sat back and allowed this to happen. It has undermined our democracy, it's an attack on the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy as we know it," Albanese said. "And not just Mr. Morrison, but others who were involved in this need to be held to account."

Morrison's moves have left legal scholars scratching their heads.

Professor Anne Twomey, a constitutional law expert at the University of Sydney, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. that it was reasonable that Morrison might want to have a second person who was able to take over if the first person was incapacitated.

But she said any ministerial appointments would typically be recorded and published in the government gazette.

"Doing that kind of thing in secret? Very, very odd," Twomey said.

Morrison's moves were signed off by Governor-General David Hurley.

A spokesperson for Hurley said the governor-general followed processes consistent with the constitution.

"It is not uncommon for ministers to be appointed to administer departments other than their portfolio responsibility," the spokesperson said in a statement. "These appointments do not require a swearing-in ceremony. The governor-general signs an administrative instrument on the advice of the prime minister."

Morrison was the prime minister at the time who was giving that advice.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press