Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said his predecessor Scott Morrison “undermined democracy” by secretly appointing himself to additional ministerial roles during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After a review of the issue by the Prime Minister’s department, Albanese told reporters Morrison, who stepped down as leader of the Liberal Party after losing May’s election, had taken on the health and finance portfolios in March 2020, resources in April 2021 and home affairs and treasury in May 2021.
Albanese said he had asked the country’s Solicitor-General to advise him on whether Morrison’s actions, which he called a “shadow government”, were legal.
“It is completely extraordinary that these appointments were kept secret by the Morrison Government from the Australian people,” he said, adding that he was open to laws that would require public disclosure when a minister is sworn into a portfolio.
The outrage over the appointments has drawn increased scrutiny of the Morrison government’s handling of the pandemic, and his decision to block a controversial offshore gas project after making himself resources minister.
Morrison has also come under fire from senior members of his own party and its coalition partner, the National Party, who have said they not aware of the arrangements.
Karen Andrews, a former home affairs minister in Morrison’s government, said she had no knowledge that Morrison had also taken on the role. She called for his resignation from parliament.
“You can’t govern in a veil of secrecy,” Andrews, a Liberal Party politician, told ABC radio after Albanese’s press conference.
The party’s new leader Peter Dutton said legal advice from the solicitor-general was needed before any decisions on the next steps were made.
In a lengthy statement, Morrison, who remains a Liberal backbencher, said he had “acted in good faith in a crisis”.
Morrison defended taking on extra ministerial roles without his cabinet’s knowledge during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it was “an unprecedented time”.
“I used such powers on one occasion only. I did not seek to interfere with Ministers in the conduct of their portfolio,” he said in the statement.
He added that “in hindsight these arrangements were unnecessary”.
Morrison said in a radio interview earlier on Tuesday he did not make his new roles public because they were a safeguard only, and it was an “oversight” that the ministers had not been informed that their roles had been duplicated.
Constitutional law expert Anne Twomey said the appointments raised possible legal challenges to some of the previous government’s decisions.
“The secrecy involved in this is just simply bizarre. I mean, you know, you just wonder what’s wrong with these people, if they have to do everything in secret,” she said.
“It’s just utterly inappropriate. We live in a democracy, which requires transparency.”
As resources minister, Morrison used his powers to stop approval for a gas exploration project off the coast of Australia, which was opposed by local communities. That decision is being challenged in court.
“I believe I made the right decision in the national interest. This was the only matter I involved myself directly with in this or any other department,” he said.
Albanese said it was concerning that two people had responsibility for the resources portfolio and had different positions on matters.
Not tabling in parliament who was responsible for ministerial portfolios was “a very clear breach of the obligations that the prime minister has to the parliament”, he told ABC radio earlier on Tuesday.