Scott Morrison has defended his actions in secretly having himself sworn into multiple ministry roles while prime minister, saying they were “safeguards” and “the right decision” during the pandemic.
It comes as official government documents reveal Morrison also took over parts of the social services portfolio in June 2021, with the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, hinting “there may well be more” ministries that the former Coalition leader secretly assumed responsibility for.
Breaking his silence after days of media questioning, Morrison confirmed in a 2GB radio interview that he was sworn into the portfolios of health and finance in the early stages of the pandemic, but claimed he never used any of the associated powers.
Morrison also said he took responsibility over the resources portfolio to make a decision about the PEP-11 gas exploration project in 2021. He also admitted “there were a number” of other portfolios he considered taking responsibility for “at the time for safeguard reasons” .
“They were very unconventional times,” Morrison said.
“None of these, in the case of the finance and health portfolio, were required to be used. They were there as a safeguard, they were there as a redundancy.”
Former health minister Greg Hunt was aware of Morrison’s installation to the health portfolio, but former finance minister Mathias Cormann is understood to have only learned of the arrangement through media reporting this week. Morrison said it was an “oversight” that Cormann was not told, and that he had apologized to him.
Morrison also claimed the criticism of his decisions was due to a “lack of understanding” of the powers afforded to those specific ministry positions, including financial delegations and under the Biosecurity Act.
“The powers in those portfolios, they weren’t overseen by cabinet. The minister … in both cases had powers that few, if any, ministers in our federation’s history had,” he said.
Albanese said he had received a briefing on Monday on legal advice from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet about Morrison’s ministerial arrangements. He was to receive another on Tuesday morning, and said he would give a further public update later in the morning.
Asked in a Radio National interview whether Morrison may have been sworn into additional portfolios beyond those reported, Albanese responded: “There may well be more.”
An administrative arrangements order, dated 28 June 2021 and signed by both Morrison and the governor general, David Hurley, shows Morrison took on a small section of social services responsibility. That document – obtained by Guardian Australia but first reported by Australian Associated Press – notes that the prime minister had taken over administration of the “Social Security Act 1991, insofar as it relates to Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment and the Disaster Recovery Allowance”, and the “Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, insofar as it relates to Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment and the Disaster Recovery Allowance”.
The AAO shows that those powers were previously held by the home affairs minister, and those powers had not been held by the social services minister before that time. The document also specifically says the social services minister has power over most of the social services legislation.
The document does show, however, that Morrison was given administration of some parts of the social services legislation.
Morrison told 2GB that he didn’t recall being sworn in as social services minister, but that he was “pursuing” such questions.
“I’m happy if there are others [portfolios] to be out there,” he said.
“I don’t recall that but I mean, as I said, there was some administrative issues done. I don’t dispute that.”
In an ABC Melbourne interview, Albanese said he too was not aware of Morrison taking on social services, but flagged, “I’ll be receiving a briefing this morning shortly.”
Guardian Australia has contacted Morrison and Hurley for comment on exactly which offices the former prime minister was sworn into.
Nationals leader and former Coalition minister David Littleproud called on Morrison to give a more fulsome explanation.
“I think that he owes it to the office of prime minister and the exalted position that we have in this country to reflect and actually give an explanation to clear this up and give clarity,” he told ABC TV prior to Morrison’s 2GB interview.
“The institution of cabinet is a very important one and part of the executive government of the democracy that we hold dear. And so, it’s important that there is trust within that institution, particularly cabinet.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism