Ex-Aussie PM’s secret appointments questioned - GulfToday

Ex-Aussie PM’s secret appointments questioned


Scott Morrison

Former Australian high court judge Virginia Bell in an inquiry found former prime minister Scott Morrison “undermined public trust” by secretly holding ministerial portfolios without informing the concerned ministers, without letting parliament know about them.

 The report was made public on Friday. The practice of this secret practice which came to light after the conservative prime minister lost the election led to incumbent Prime Minister Anthony Albanese set up the inquiry. Bell did not indict Morrison but she made six recommendations which included making ministerial appointments public.

Albanese said that he would implement the recommendations. Albanese had earlier said Morrison’s secrecy had “undermined democracy”.

Bell had observed in her report: “Once the appointments became known, the secrecy with which they had been surrounded was corrosive of trust in government.”

Morrison made these secret appointments first at the height of the pandemic in 2020, and then once again in 2021. During the first time round, he had himself sworn in as minister for the following portfolios: health, finance, treasury, resources and home affairs. It was Governor-General David Hurley who had administered the oath of office.

There were ministers who were holding these portfolios and they did not know that Morrison was also the minister for their portfolios. Morrison defended his act saying, “As Prime Minister my awareness of issues regarding national security and the national interest was broader than that known to the individual Ministers and certainly to the Inquiry.

This limits the ability of third parties to draw definitive conclusions on such matters.”

 Even if Morrison’s argument is accepted, the issue is not whether he has the discretionary power as a prime minister to hold these extra portfolios.

The issue is that he has kept it a secret from the ministers and from parliament.

Judge Bell noted the fact that Morrison’s secret appointments was not confined to the emergency period of the pandemic in 2020, but that he had made similar appointments in 2021 when the health emergency had passed.

Bell said in the report: “Mr Morrison’s appointment to administer departments against the risk of the incumbent becoming incapacitated served as a blueprint for the three appointments to administer departments of state in 2021, which were not concerned with the risk of incapacity but rather with the risk that the incumbent minister might exercise his or her statutory powers in a manner with which Mr Morrison did not agree.”

What is not acceptable in a democratic set up is secrecy of public appointments. Morrison has violated the basic principle of parliamentary democracy: that the cabinet is accountable to parliament and to people at large. Morrison argued that during Covid-19 pandemic, there was the danger of a minister falling ill and there was need for continuity. It seems to be a poor reasoning.

The emergency takeover of a portfolio if a minister is incapacitated because of ill-health is always available.

 The prime minister could take over the portfolio himself or he could ask a colleague to take charge.

What remains inexplicable is the practice of keeping the information a secret. Albanese had rightly criticized the practice when he spoke to the press after the release of the report: “We’re shining sunlight on a shadow government that preferred to operate in darkness. A government that operated in a cult of secrecy and a culture of cover-up.”

It is right that the issue has come to light and that an inquiry was conducted into the operation, and Bell has clearly stated that transparency is the key principle in appointments to government which is accountable to parliament.

The prime minister has indeed a measure of discretionary power but there is no room for use of arbitrary power, and none for secrecy.

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