When he was prime minister, Scott Morrison often told the Australian people he was focused on just one thing: “jobs, jobs, jobs”.
What Australians didn’t know was that those jobs – plural – turned out to be his own.
In an unprecedented power grab unseen in Australian politics even during the uncertainty of the second world war, it emerged this week that Morrison had sworn himself into roles in five different ministries between March 2020 and May 2021, in most cases without the extant minister knowing.
He sat as a ghostly understudy in health, finance, resources, treasury and home affairs, all portfolios where the appointed minister had unilateral decision-making powers. Thus far, he has been able to explain the ministries hoard only as “a safeguard” during the Covid pandemic.
The Queen’s representative, Governor General David Hurley, had sworn in Morrison for the portfolios, but did not make it public. Hurley said he had no reason to believe the appointments would not become known. Usually, Australian ministers are sworn in to their positions by the governor general in front of the chambers, the appointments then gazetted and tabled in public. At the very least, there is a press release. This didn’t happen for any of Morrison’s five extra appointments.
Anthony Albanese, who beat Boris Johnson ally Morrison in a landslide election victory this year, labeled his predecessor’s actions an “unprecedented trashing of our democracy”.
An ‘elegant solution’
The secret trove may have remained a secret if it was not for throwaway paragraphs in a recently released book from two News Corp journalists, who did not seem to comprehend the ramifications of what they had been told.
The book Plagued described Morrison’s plan to swear himself in as health minister as an “elegant solution” to any one minister from having “absolute power” at the beginning of Australia’s response to the pandemic. The finance portfolio was thrown in for good measure, to ensure, the book’s author’s relayed, “there were two people with their hands on the purse strings”.
That tidbit was included in an extract of the book published by the Murdoch masthead the journalists work for. The broadsheet too appeared to underestimate the revelations, making very little fanfare over what the authors themselves wrote was a move without precedent. But social media care. As did Albanese, Australia’s new prime minister, who ordered an immediate briefing on what had occurred. What unfurled was another extraordinary week in Australian politics.
At first it was just the two reported ministries, but it quickly became apparent there was a third – resources – which Morrison had sworn himself into in order to use unilateral ministerial powers to make decisions about projects. It emerged Morrison used those powers to overturn the decision of the existing minister to approve an offshore gas mine, off the coast of New South Wales, where Morrison was trying to hold on to seats.
The minister only discovered he had a ministry bedfellow when Morrison told him he was stepping in to change the decision. It had nothing to do with the “elegant solution” of curbing ministerial powers during the pandemic.
That was on Monday. On Tuesday, Morrison was telling a friendly radio host he did not recall swearing himself in for any further ministries, but he had asked for a briefing to be sure.
Just hours later, a departmental briefing revealed Morrison had also taken on Treasury and home affairs, more than a year after he first exercised the little-known constitutional loophole. Both had been taken without the ministers’ knowledge.
That prompted a 1,200-word Facebook explanation from the ex-prime minister who insisted he had been right to take on the roles, as a form of “break in case of emergency” safeguard, but he did not explain the secrecy.
By Wednesday, with the scandal continuing to grow and one of his former ministers calling for him to resign from parliament, Morrison held an hour-long, combative press conference where he explained that in hindsight, he probably didn’t need to act as he did, but he did not regret having done so.
No one knew what it was like to be the prime minister during those times, Morrison argued. “You’re standing on the shore after the fact. I was steering the ship in the middle of the storm,” he said with all seriousness.
Morrison apologized to the ministers he had secretly usurped for the “offence” but no more. He argued he had to keep the moves secret, in order for “good government” to continue.
The only explanation he could muster for taking on additional powers was because the Australian people had expected him to, with everyone holding him responsible for “every single thing that was going on, every drop of rain, every strain of the virus, everything that occurred over that period of time”. He needed more power he didn’t use, he argued, because “people expected me to be able to take what responsibilities I could to deal with the issues.”
His press opened up more inconsistencies and questions than it answered but by Thursday conference, Morrison was making jokes about the saga on Facebook, admitting he found the memes of him also doing the jobs of various Australian businesses and industry “amusing”.
Morrison seems unbothered by a potential censorship in the parliament, as well as a looming inquiry. The new government is waiting on advice from the solicitor general, due next week, before mapping out its next moves.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism