The reason given for Scott Morrison’s secretive assumption of other ministers’ jobs makes no sense, an international expert in cabinet government says, as new testimony hints his power grab may have been even wider than imagined.
Mr Morrison’s assumption of cabinet authority is at the centre of an unfolding scandal, and even one of the previous government’s most senior ministers, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, admitted he did not know whether he had been unknowingly sharing the job of Defence Minister with his former leader.
“Obviously, the prime minister or the former prime minister had his reasons, his logic for it but [it was] not a decision that I was a party to or was aware of,” he said.
Canberra was shocked by original reports that Mr Morrison secretly had himself sworn-in to assume cabinet portfolios in finance and health and, later, energy at the peak of COVID-19 including reported cases where two ministers were never told.
Mr Dutton on Monday repeated a previously reported justification for the extraordinary measures: To ensure additional “checks and balances” in cabinet during the pandemic when government powers and expenditure were high.
“Well, bulls–t,” said Patrick Weller, the emeritus professor of politics at Griffith University who wrote the book(s) on cabinet government.
“And if it’s true, why was he the Minister of Health, Finance and Resources and not Minister for the Treasury of Foreign Affairs and everything else?
“This is all complete excuses.”
Disquiet was growing in the Nationals on Monday as some MPs said the undeclared occupation of the energy portfolio by a Liberal prime minister was a complete violation of the agreement that binds the Coalition parties together.
Mr Morrison only declared that he had taken on the resources portfolio to tell Nationals MP Keith Pitt that he did not have the ministerial authority to approve a controversial gas project.
But in the party’s strongest statement on the matter yet, its deputy leader Perin Davey told The New Daily the previous government had breached more than a governing agreement.
“Morrison appears to have rewritten the whole principle of a cabinet government,” she said.
One senior member of the previous government who had been close to the PM said on Monday that media reaction had been overblown.
“It would be remarkable if there weren’t contingencies during a global pandemic,” the Coalition insider said.
PM was twisting the rules
But Dr Weller said contingencies such as ministers falling sick would never have posed a problem and presented only minutes of immediate work.
He says that Mr Morrison took the leeway afforded by democratic conventions to concentrate power in his hands to a degree that totally undermined the system of giving ministers legislative power so government can function.
“They’re twisting the notion of the constitutional rules,” he said.
“If you’re a departmental secretary, you have two ministers, both of whom have legal authority, to tell you what to do, telling you to do opposite things?
“I would have thought that if you’re a minister with any backbone, and you discover the Prime Minister has been rustling around in your department making decisions which reverse the ones that you’ve made you either challenge him or you resign …”
The takeover also undermines, Dr Weller said, the obverse of ministerial powers – ministerial responsibility – two concepts at the very foundation of cabinet government.
The Member for Cook offered only a glib reply to a journalist who asked him if he wished to reply to comments by PM Anthony Albanese that his actions had “trashed” the democratic process.
“Since leaving the job I haven’t engaged in any day-to-day politics,’’ the former PM reportedly texted.
The emerging holes in the explanation for Mr Morrison’s odd behaviour have generated only more questions from a revelation about the functioning of a government that has blindsided even those at its heart.
In between the missing detail Dr Weller sees the emerging portrait of a prime minister who coveted others’ responsibilities while seeming to disregard his own presiding powers and responsibility.
“I think I can actually say that he’s unique” he said.
“God knows what his motivations were.
“It’s a bizarre comment on the lack of skills of a prime minister to wield the powers of the prime minister: rather than wield the powers, he chooses to circumvent them.
‘‘That’s a comment on his capacity as prime minister and his confidence.”
On Monday afternoon, a spokesman for Governor-General David Hurley confirmed Mr Morrison had held additional ministries.
There were conflicting reports on Monday about whether one of the former colleagues who shared a portfolio with Mr Morrison, the then finance minister Mathias Cormann, was aware of the arrangement.
On Monday afternoon, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Glyn Davis was seeking legal advice about the secret appointments from the Solicitor-General.