We need a royal commission to shed light on ‘shadow government’

Liberal backbencher Scott Morrison was true to type this week when the revelation of his secret multi-ministerial existence while prime minister convulsed Canberra.

On social media, radio and television there was wordy self-justification.

It was only revealed this week that Scott Morrison took on a range of extra portfolios while prime minister.Credit:Dionne Gain

Morrison failed to “recall” additional ministries he might have secretly appropriated. Within hours, further revelations emerged of him being secretly sworn in as treasurer and minister for home affairs too – hardly something you would forget.

The exculpatory wall of words and prevarication made Emmanuel Macrons of us all, including Morrison’s former cabinet colleagues: “We don’t think, we know” that Australia’s 30th prime minister hasn’t told the full story.

He did not reveal his secret ministerial incarnations for most of the 46th parliament, failing to inform cabinet colleagues who loyally stuck with him despite him becoming, by the end, a deadweight on the Liberal vote.

It was the biggest “unknown unknown” of Australian politics – unknown except to Morrison, his God and the tiny number of enablers party to the conspiracy of silence.

Scott Morrison assumed joint responsibility for portfolios held by Josh Frydenberg, Karen Andrews, Greg Hunt, Mathias Cormann and Keith Pitt.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

It would be a mistake to write it off as just Morrison weirdness. This secretive multi-ministerial gambit represents a failure of norms at the heart of Australian government that, in a system that relies on good people doing the right thing, has to be restored.

Conservative commentator Janet Albrechtsen tweeted that former attorney-general Christian Porter “created the legal template for Morrison to take health in March 2020” and that Morrison then “used that same template, without the attorney-general knowing, to take hold of other ministerial responsibilities”.

At the top of the Australian Public Service, officials are flabbergasted. The view is that this is very unlikely to have happened without some input from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Morrison confirmed on Wednesday that he had indeed taken Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM and C) advice on his appointment to multiple ministries. The department is the steward of governance in our Westminster system of democracy.

Scott Morrison on Wednesday explaining to the media why he secretly took on the extra portfolios.Credit:Dean Sewell

The instruments used to commission Morrison in the multiple ministries would normally be produced by PM and C, whose deputy secretary governance is “the keeper of the flame”.

It’s the heart of the department’s Government Division that advises on the operations of government: proper cabinet processes, caretaker conventions, all the protocols and precedents that maintain the Westminster system.

Some of these things are explicitly underpinned by the Australian Constitution and laws flowing from it, but much of it is based on conventions and longstanding practice.

The point of the public service in the Westminster system is to say, “No, minister” when actions are contemplated by ministers – including the prime minister – that breach the laws and conventions which together constitute our system of responsible government.

The Morrison government “had no respect for” that system, one top official intimately involved in its operations observed this week.

“So long as things aren’t strictly unlawful, they were happy to trash the conventions.”

Things worsened exponentially under Morrison. While “sometimes grudging”, Abbott largely accepted “the way things should be done”.

The descent accelerated under Turnbull, the official said, “because he was desperate to keep the Nats in the tent, and they have never cared for the niceties”.

The “industrial rorting of grants programs” is a guide to the timeline of the federal government’s ethical descent, the official says, and under Morrison it became florid. “It was not actually unlawful but clearly inconsistent with the proper expenditure of taxpayers’ money.”

The wholesale stacking of the Fair Work Commission is another index of the “trashing of the conventions ”. This contrasted sharply with conventional practice, under which appointments historically occurred through a proper merit selection process, with applications vetted by the public service and a careful balancing of numbers of candidates from employer and union backgrounds.

The deceptive “not illegal” fig leaf has been used as cover for questionable decisions under Morrison in relation to the grants rorting, job stacking and now the unprecedented appointment of and by him to multiple cabinet portfolios.

“As if anyone ever thought we would need a law to prevent a prime minister secretly being appointed to other ministerial portfolios,” the official said.

Nor does Morrison’s pandemic explanation make sense.

“Nearly every portfolio has a junior minister who is also sworn to the portfolio and could administer it if the senior minister became incapacitated,” the official adds. “Plus, it would only take a few hours to swear another minister in if somehow all the sworn ministers were out of action.”

In any case, the three ministries Morrison added to his haul in 2021 occurred against the backdrop of a highly vaccinated population when “we knew COVID wasn’t going to suddenly kill a slew of ministers”.

There is, in short, little merit in Morrison’s defence. And that’s before we get to the threshold issue, that it was kept secret from the Australian public.

Opposition frontbencher Karen Andrews showed bottle calling for Morrison to resign. Her outrage about the con job a shifty prime minister perpetrated on her and senior cabinet colleagues was healthy.

It contrasted with the self-interested reaction of some other Liberals such as opposition leader Peter Dutton and former prime minister John Howard, who privileged the need to avoid a by-election in Morrison’s seat of Cook which they fear would be lost.

Royal commissions should be called only in the most critical of circumstances. This is one of those circumstances.

Attention should fall on the role of PM and C. Royal commission powers may well be necessary to get answers in the detail required.

A sketchy character has been exposed and moved to the weird margins of Australian political history.

The deterioration of the Australian Public Service under pressure from the Morrison government, on the other hand, is a matter of significant ongoing concern. The integrity of government decision-making must be restored.

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