The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, is seeking legal advice over reports his predecessor, Scott Morrison, was secretly sworn into three ministry positions while in government, accusing Morrison of “running a shadow government”.
Without the knowledge of some senior cabinet colleagues – including then finance minister Mathias Cormann – Morrison allegedly had himself secretly appointed as the minister for health, finance and resources at various times in office. In April last year, the governor general, David Hurley, also reportedly appointed Morrison to oversee the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, according to federal court filings obtained by the Australian newspaper.
Morrison’s then deputy PM Barnaby Joyce described the alleged arrangements as “very bad practice”, while a constitutional law expert said the alleged secrecy around the move was “bizarre”.
Albanese said he and his department secretary were seeking legal briefings over the reports.
“This is extraordinary and unprecedented,” the prime minister said at a press conference in Melbourne, calling the alleged appointments “the sort of tin-pot activity that we would ridicule if it was in a non-democratic country”.
“Australians knew during the election campaign that I was running a shadow ministry. What they didn’t know was that Scott Morrison was running a shadow government. A shadow government that was operating in the shadows.”
A spokesperson for the governor general confirmed he had “appointed former prime minister Morrison to administer portfolios other than the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.”
“It is not uncommon for ministers to be appointed to administer other departments than their portfolio responsibility. These appointments do not require a swearing-in ceremony – the governor general signs and administrative instrument on the advice of the prime minister,” the spokesperson said.
“The decision whether to publicise appointments to administer additional portfolios is a matter for the government of the day.”
Guardian Australia has confirmed Cormann, the former finance minister, was not aware that Morrison had given himself the powers of the finance minister and only learned about the extraordinary assumption of powers this week.
The former health minister, Greg Hunt, is understood to have discussed plans for Morrison to be appointed health minister in meetings with the then attorney general Christian Porter in early March 2020 as the government developed internal protocols for the application of the Biosecurity Act. While it is not believed to have been signed off by a full meeting of cabinet, sources suggest it had been taken to the National Security Committee of cabinet.
It is understood that Morrison did not use the ministerial powers for the health or finance portfolios.
Reports published in the Australian newspaper and News.com.au over the weekend said Morrison sought legal advice from then attorney general Christian Porter that two ministers could be sworn into the same portfolio, and that Morrison could swear himself into the role via an administrative legal instruments.
The Australian reported Morrison swore himself in as health and finance minister during the early stages of the pandemic, partly to safeguard against those ministers being struck down by Covid. An upcoming book by political reporters from the Australian, titled Plagued, reported that Morrison saw it as an “elegant solution to the problem they were trying to solve – safeguarding against any one minister having absolute power” during the pandemic.
Last night, News.com.au reported Morrison was also sworn in as resources minister in late 2021, after a dispute with then resources minister Keith Pitt over the PEP-11 fossil fuel development off the New South Wales coast.
Morrison is understood to have used his powers to block the renewal of the Pep-11 offshore gas project, despite the opposition of Pitt.
At the time, Morrison said he had the “authority” to block the project, which had become a hot-button issue for MPs representing coastal seats from Newcastle to Wollongong.
The Australian reported that court filings from the Australian government solicitor state that Morrison was “directed and appointed by the governor general” to lead the industry and resources department in April 2021. Guardian Australia has requested those court filings.
Albanese questioned how the appointments were made.
“In Australia, we have a Westminster system of government that produces accountability.” he said.
“In Parliament, I, as leader of my party, and Peter Dutton now, but Scott Morrison as the former leader of the country, would table the list of ministers. That is not some academic exercise. That is so that people can be held accountable.”
“How is it that the governor general could swear in Scott Morrison into ministerial portfolios without there being a transparency there about that process?”
Guardian Australia has contacted Morrison’s office and the office of the governor general for comment, as well as Porter and Pitt. The departments of health, finance and industry have also been approached for comment.
Albanese said he would be briefed on the situation this afternoon, and that his department secretary, Glyn Davies, was seeking information from parties including the solicitor general.
Constitutional expert Prof Anne Twomey, of Sydney University, described the situation as “bizarre”.
“What on Earth was going on, I don’t know, but the [alleged] secrecy involved in this is just simply bizarre,” she told the ABC.
“If they had done it and made it public, it probably would have been seen pretty reasonable for people, but hiding it?”
Twomey said ministerial appointments would normally be recorded in the government gazette, but that no record of Morrison’s swearing-in appears to be published.
Prof George Williams, a constitutional law expert at the University of NSW, said section 64 of the constitution gives the power to unilaterally swear in a minister to the governor general.
“It’s a little bit ambiguous, it says the governor general can appoint officers, but it doesn’t only say there shall only be one officer or minister,” he said.
“The constitution doesn’t prevent this happening, but that’s because it’s silent on this and that clause is pretty open ended as to what may happen.”
The immigration minister, Andrew Giles, told Radio National on Monday morning that it was “unclear” what legal basis the former prime minister was operating under.
“What we’ve heard is a repudiation of the cabinet model of government we’ve had in Australia for well over 100 years,” he said.
Joyce, the former Nationals leader and deputy PM under Morrison, said he disagreed with the alleged actions and said he only found out about the arrangements following Morrison swearing himself in as resources minister – the position held by Joyce’s Nationals colleague, Pitt.
“I found out about it, and I disagree with it. I believe in a cabinet system of government where ministers are responsible for their own portfolio. We don’t have a presidential form of government,” Joyce told Sunrise on Monday.
David Littleproud, the current Nationals leader, told Radio National he didn’t know about the alleged arrangements. He called it “pretty ordinary” and “disappointing”.
NDIS minister Bill Shorten was also critical of the reports.
“If you’re going to do things that are unorthodox, you really need to have a very good explanation and I haven’t heard one yet,” he said.
“I don’t know if it’s some messianic complex or he thought he was the Australian version of Kanye, but this is actually a serious matter.”
- Todd and Julie Chrisley told their son Grayson, 16, to guard his 'tender heart' amid legal troubles
- The Dobbs Decision Has Unleashed Legal Chaos for Doctors and Patients
- Todd and Julie Chrisley Told 16-Year-Old Son Grayson to Protect His 'Tender Heart' amid Family Legal Woes
- Pritzker asks for more federal money to states with abortion access
- Germany plans to ease rules for legal changes of gender