CANBERRA, Australia – Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Tuesday accused his predecessor Scott Morrison of “knowing about democracy” after revealing that while Morrison was in office he held five cabinet posts unbeknownst to most other lawmakers or the public.
Albanese said Morrison operated in secret, keeping the Australian people in the dark and misleading Parliament about who was in charge of which portfolios.
“It was government by deception,” Albanese said.
Adding to detailed revelations for the first time 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 that appeared to have given Morrison equal powers for ministers already appointed to those posts.
“It is quite extraordinary that these appointments have been kept secret by the Morrison government from the Australian people,” Albanese told reporters in Canberra.
Speaking on Sydney radio station 2GB, Morrison defended taking over the extra wallets, saying they were a safeguard during the coronavirus pandemic and that he would have made the appointments public if he needed to to use the powers involved.
“Sometimes we forget what happened two years ago and the situation we faced. It was an unconventional and unprecedented time,” Morrison told the radio station.
He pointed to the then British Prime Minister’s coronavirus hospitalization.
“Boris Johnson almost died one night,” Morrison said. “We’ve brought down ministers with COVID.”
Morrison has used his extra powers on at least one occasion to overturn a decision by former minister Keith Pitt to approve a controversial gas project off the New South Wales coast.
Pitt said in a statement that he was unaware that Morrison had joint oversight over his ministerial portfolio and that he stood by the decisions he made at the time.
In a more detailed account posted to Facebook later Tuesday, Morrison wrote that the gas project was the only matter he was directly involved in 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 secretary under Morrison, said Morrison never told her he was also a portfolio appointee. She said Morrison, who remains in parliament on the opposition benches, should step down.
“The Australian people have been disappointed, they have been betrayed,” she said. “For a former Prime Minister to behave in this way, to be secretly sworn in to other portfolios, undermines the Westminster system, it is absolutely unacceptable.”
Albanese said he was seeking the solicitor general’s opinion on the legality of some of Morrison’s moves, including on the gas project, and expected to get it on Monday.
“It is a sad accusation not only of Mr Morrison, but of all his Cabinet colleagues who sat down and allowed this to happen. It has undermined our democracy, it is an attack on the system of parliamentary democracy of Westminster as we know it,” Albanian said. “And not just Mr Morrison, but others involved in this matter must be held accountable.”
Morrison’s moves have left legal scholars scratching their heads.
Professor Anne Twomey, a constitutional law expert at the University of Sydney, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that it was reasonable that Morrison wanted to have a second person able to take over if the first person was incapacitated.
But she said any ministerial appointments would generally be recorded and published in the government gazette.
“Doing this stuff in secret? Very, very strange,” Twomey said.
Morrison’s decisions were endorsed 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 act on the advice of the Prime Minister.”
Morrison was the Prime Minister at the time who gave this advice.