The findings of an inquiry into Scott Morrison’s decision to appoint himself to oversee multiple ministries have been published today.
The inquiry, led by former High Court justice Virginia Bell, was requested by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Here’s what it found.
How ministers work
First, some background. Ministers are central to Australia’s system of Government. They are appointed by the Governor-General to carry out the executive functions of Government.
The Prime Minister is by convention thought of as the “first among equals”, but isn’t mentioned in the Constitution and does not have ‘supreme’ authority like Presidents in other systems.
The Prime Minister and many other Ministers have a range of powers given to them by various laws.
Health Minister Morrison
On 14 March 2020, Scott Morrison was appointed to be the Health Minister alongside Greg Hunt. Hunt was aware of the plan, as was Attorney-General Christian Porter.
The Health Minister has strong emergency powers during a pandemic. Bell found two reasons for the appointment: one so Morrison could exercise the powers if Hunt became incapacitated (e.g. with COVID), and the other to act as a ‘check’ on Hunt’s powers. Hunt was not aware of the second reason.
Very few people had knowledge of the appointment. The Secretary of the Department of Health was not told, and the Chief Medical Officer was only told in advance that it was a possibility. The decision was not made public.
Government lawyers advised the appointments were “unnecessary” and an “overkill”. Bell agreed the appointment was “unnecessary… If [Hunt] had become incapacitated… Morrison could have been authorised to act as Minister for Health… in a matter of minutes,” she said.
Finance Minister Morrison
Two weeks later, Morrison also appointed himself Finance Minister alongside Mathias Cormann. The Finance Minister had substantial emergency spending powers.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann was not told, and nor were the Secretary of the Department or any other Cabinet Ministers. Morrison’s own chief of staff, John Kunkel, also had “little” knowledge.
Again, Bell considered the appointment “unnecessary”.
Three more ministries
The next appointments came in 2021, over a year later, as Minister for Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, Minister for Home Affairs, and Treasurer. Again, none of the Ministers were told.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has since told journalist Niki Savva he felt it was “extreme overreach”. Bell said these appointments were “in a different category” to the earlier ones. “Morrison was appointed… to give himself the capacity to exercise particular statutory powers”.
Morrison only used the powers on one occasion, when he overrode Resources Minister Keith Pitt on a decision about the extension of a petroleum exploration licence.
Bell noted that apart from this, the consequences of Morrison’s decisions were “entirely theoretical”.
She was particularly critical of the decision not to publicise the appointments, calling it “corrosive” of the public’s trust in government.
Bell’s report included a quote from Mike Pezzullo, the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, which offers some insight into the potential risks of the arrangement.
Pezzullo told Bell there was a danger of a situation where “two Cabinet Ministers, each authorised… [used their] power inconsistently over the same subject matter”.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the report is “shining sunlight on a shadow Government that preferred to operate in darkness”.
He said Morrison had “quite clearly” misled the Parliament, and the Government was considering its next steps. Morrison remains a Member of Parliament.