yescott Morrison’s secret appointment to at least five additional ministries, in concert with the governor general, is destructive of our system of responsible government, a deception of the parliament, and an affront to the Australian people. Make no mistake about this bizarre usurpation of the ministerial command of treasury, home affairs, finance, health and resources: it is serious and disturbing.
Morrison defended his decision to keep those ministries concealed by saying he never exercised the powers he had. He said he believed “it was necessary to have authority, to have what were effectively emergency powers, to exercise in extreme situations that would be unforeseen, that would enable me to act in the national interests”.
The former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull describes Morrison’s ministerial fetish as “one of the most appalling things I’ve ever heard… this is sinister stuff”, and with good reason. It goes to the heart of our democratic system of responsible government, in which individual ministers are responsible for specific departments, and accountable to the parliament and the Australian people for their actions. Ministerial responsibility is the critical means through which to realize political accountability and transparency, which people clamored for more than at the recent election. It goes without saying that this fundamental responsibility is simply impossible if we don’t even know who the minister is.
Let’s be clear on just what the fundamental point at issue is here. It is not, as some have suggested, that Morrison held several ministerial portfolios at the same time – that is neither uncommon nor a problem: Tony Abbott, for example, was both prime minister and minister for women (yes, I know, right) . The issue here is quite different: it is that Morrison was sworn in by the governor general to five ministries, each of which was already held by somebody else. And this happened in secret, without any notification of this unprecedented ministerial duplication to the parliament, or even, with the exception of the former health minister Greg Hunt, to the other ministers.
This was the creation of a phantom ministry, existing above and beyond the publicly known official ministry, and capable of exercising the full range of ministerial power in relation to those portfolios, in secret. In the prime minister Anthony Albanese’s excoriating assessment, this was “an unprecedented trashing of our democracy”. The failure of Morrison to identify himself as a minister, during every question time for instance, was a gross disappointment of both the parliament and the Australian people.
Various commentators have depicted this as in some way being a shared arrangement or a “back-up” position – a “joint minister”, “sharing” jobs, “co-ministers” – but this is not correct. A shared ministry would, at the very least, have required the knowledge of the other “co-minister” – how could it be otherwise? – and only Hunt knew of this private arrangement. It is difficult to see how these could be in any way shared ministries if the other minister, the public and the parliament were unaware the arrangement even existed.
Any shared arrangement would also need to be specified with the division of responsibility between the two ministers and set out in the administrative order creating the second – Morrison’s – position. We are yet to see the administrative order since Hurley did not release it at the time. Morrison was sworn into all five ministries as a fully-fledged duplicate minister, despite the existence of an incumbent, with the full powers of that portfolio available to be used by him, in secret.
Whether this appointment of a duplicate minister is “technically legal” is frankly not the point. Politically, it is a nonsense, a political oxymoron that undermines accountability and responsibility for fracturing it. If “responsible government” is to mean anything at all, you cannot have a second “minister” appointed in secret, who can at any point step in and override the decision of the first, and only publicly acknowledged, minister.
Morrison was sworn in by Hurley apparently through the device of “an administrative instrument on the advice of the prime minister”. Hurley has defended the failure to publicize Morrison’s appointments as “a matter for the government of the day”. While the governor general was right to act on the advice of the prime minister, provided the prime minister retained the confidence of the House of Representatives as Morrison did, the secrecy about these appointments raises obvious concerns.
Since Hurley had already sworn somebody else into each of these portfolios, we can expect that he asked Morrison about the necessity for them, and the legal basis on which this unprecedented decision to appoint a duplicate minister was made. According to the classic duty of the crown as described by Walter Bagehot, “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn”, Hurley ought to have discussed these duplicate appointments openly and robustly with the prime minister before acting on his advice from him.
We know from the vice-regal letters of previous governors general, released by the National Archives earlier this year after my successful “palace letters” high court action, that the governor general would also have been expected to inform the Queen of these ministerial appointments. It is quite possible then that the Queen knew of Morrison’s duplicate appointments, while the Australian parliament and the people did not.
However, neither Morrison nor Hurley made these ministerial appointments public, and it is here that the role of the governor general ought to be considered further, for the secrecy is troubling.
the parliamentary handbook describes the process through which ministers are appointed by the governor general, and their subsequent public announcement: “The approval of the Governor-General to the composition of the Ministry … is notified publicly and announced in the House. The principal areas of departmental responsibility and enactments administered by the respective Ministers are notified publicly by order of the Governor-General.”
There was no public or parliamentary announcement of any of Morrison’s additional portfolios, nor any order of the governor general. It is not good enough to claim, as Hurley has, that the decision on the public announcement was a matter for the government – it is not. If the prime minister directed the governor general not to make the usual public announcement of a ministerial appointment, then Hurley should now make this clear. As it stands, the governor general became a party to the deception of the parliament and the people, and he must now consider his position.
Last year Morrison vetoed a controversial gas exploration plan, Pep-11, ostensibly as prime minister, with it later emerging that he did it in the capacity as unknown resources minister. We only know of this due to lawful action taken by Assets Energy earlier this year challenging the ministerial decision, which brought Morrison’s secret role – who knew? – to light. That case has also highlighted precisely the dangerous folly of appointing a second, secret minister to a position already held by an existing minister. It raises the prospect of unauthorized decision-making on the part of the phantom minister, whose role was previously not even known.
One intriguing question that remains is whether the heads of department of these five ministries knew of these appointments, as apparently the head of prime minister and cabinet, Phil Gaetjens, did. Did they know of the second minister to whom they were also accountable? Was Hurley advised by Morrison not to make these appointments public, and what other actions did Morrison take as minister across his five newly discovered portfolios of him?
There is a long way still to play out in this strange and troublesome case. At least one of Morrison’s own former ministers has been calling for his resignation, and there has been shock about this betrayal of trust, convention, and responsibility. It augurs an ignominious end to the political career of a prime minister.
Jenny Hocking is an emeritus professor at Monash University, a distinguished fellow at the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University and an award-winning biographer of Gough Whitlam. Her latest book is The Palace Letters: The Queen, the governor-general, and the plot to dismiss Gough Whitlam
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism