Australia announces inquiry into Morrison’s secret ministries

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has announced an independent inquiry into his predecessor Scott Morrison’s secret appointment to multiple ministries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Albanese announced the move on Tuesday after Solicitor General Stephen Donaghue concluded that while Morrison’s appointments were legal, they “fundamentally undermined” responsible government.

“Our democracy is precious,” Albanese wrote on Twitter. “Australians deserve to know who is responsible for making decisions on their behalf.”

Morrison, who stepped down as leader of the Liberal Party after losing a general election in May, has faced a barrage of criticism from the Labor government and his own party, after it was revealed he was secretly sworn in to ministries without telling parliament or his cabinet, an unprecedented assumption of power.

In the written advice, the solicitor general was critical that the public and Parliament were not informed of Morrison’s appointment to the ministries.

This was “inconsistent with the conventions and practices that form an essential part of the system of responsible government prescribed by the … Constitution,” the advice said.

“That is because it is impossible for Parliament and the public to hold Ministers accountable for the proper administration of particular departments if the identity of the Ministers who have been appointed to administer those departments is not publicised.”

Three ministers were unaware Morrison shared power over their ministries of home affairs, treasury and finance until last week. Morrison said he only intervened in one ministry, resources, to block an offshore gas project. The decision is now being challenged in court by the resources company.

Albanese told reporters in Canberra that the advice from the country’s second-highest law officer was a “very clear criticism” of the implications for Australia’s parliamentary democracy.

The prime minister said his cabinet had agreed “there will be need for a further inquiry” into the matter, although the nature and the scope of the inquiry are yet to be determined.

He added that Morrison’s behaviour was “extraordinary” and said his predecessor “does need to be held to account for it”.

Morrison’s appointments were approved by Governor General David Hurley, the ceremonial head of state, but there was no public swearing-in ceremony.

Donaghue, the solicitor general, said Hurley’s actions were consistent with convention.

“The Governor-General has no discretion to refuse to accept the Prime Minister’s advice in relation to such an appointment,” he wrote.

Morrison’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The former prime minister said last week the coronavirus pandemic was an extraordinary time and he secretly took on the ministries because he felt responsibility for the nation was his alone.

Australia has a cabinet-based system that relies on a group of ministers governing, and not a presidential system.

The popularity of Albanese’s government has soared since the May election win, with a Resolve Strategic opinion poll published by Nine newspapers showing Labor on a primary vote of 42 percent, up from 33 percent at the election, ahead of the Coalition’s 28 percent.