Report into Scott Morrison’s secret ministries show how far Australia’s democracy had strayed

Home Politics Report into Scott Morrison’s secret ministries show how far Australia’s democracy had strayed
Report into Scott Morrison’s secret ministries show how far Australia’s democracy had strayed

There’s something bleatingly obvious about the six recommendations put to the federal government to prevent former prime minister Scott Morrison’s secret ministries happening again. 

Virginia Bell’s recommendations are so innocuous, it’s little wonder Morrison’s replacement, Labor’s Anthony Albanese, was quick to declare he wanted them implemented in full.

At their core, they call for transparency. They set parameters that could better ensure Australians have both the right and ability to find out who’s running the country.

That politicians might need to be reminded of this highlights just how far Australia’s democracy had strayed.

“Given that the Parliament was not informed of any of the appointments, it was unable to hold Mr Morrison to account in his capacity as minister administering any of these five departments,” Bell wrote.

How it happened

Morrison’s ministerial power grab started early in 2020, first at the health department and then soon after at finance.

His then attorney-general Christian Porter recommended he gain power at Health as a check on the “extraordinary powers” entrusted to the health minister in an emergency.

There are few indications that those who helped Morrison gain that power in early 2020 could have ever imagined it would be used to take control of three additional departments more than a year later.

Albanese called in Bell, a former High Court justice, shortly after the secret ministries were revealed earlier this year.

A woman with short hair and glasses sits at a desk in front of bookshelves lined with legal texts.
Virginia Bell made six recommendations to prevent secret ministries from happening again.(AAP: Paul Miller)

In the months since, she, and counsel assisting Jackson Wherrett, forensically mapped out how it was that Morrison took power often without his own cabinet colleagues having the foggiest of clues.

What they ultimately found was a highly-centralised government, one where even the prime minister’s chief of staff, John Kunkel, “had little involvement in, or knowledge of, the appointments to administer the Departments of Health and Finance”.

He wasn’t alone. The head of Morrison’s department, Phil Gaetjens, didn’t know Morrison had taken power at the Finance Department (neither did the minister or department boss) but he did endorse it when he found out afterwards.

Morrison has repeatedly said he took on powers at the Health and Finance departments in the event their ministers were struck down from COVID.

He told the then chief medical officer Brendan Murphy and health minister Greg Hunt of his intention, and that he would only use the powers in the event Hunt was incapacitated.

Both men were left to assume it had happened, with Morrison or his office not notifying them when the paperwork was signed, Bell found.

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Key findings from the inquiry into Scott Morrison’s secret ministries

Bureaucrats spoke truth to power

In March 2020 when the paperwork was being sorted, it made its way to the desk of David Lewis, a general counsel within the Attorney-General’s Department. 

Lewis agreed that the best way for Morrison to be able to exercise powers under the Biosecurity Act was for him to be appointed as an administer of the Department of Health but offered a warning. 

The report stated he wrote:

It does seem a bit like overkill as any Health portfolio minister will, under the protocol, need to consult the [Prime Minister] and other relevant ministers.

I don’t really see why we are trying to reinvent the process under the Act and usual cabinet government, but there you are. (emphasis added)

He then reiterated his reservations to the head of the Attorney-General’s Department, Chris Moraitis.

The idea of having the [prime minister] exercise the emergency biosecurity powers seems unnecessary to me. A junior health minister could exercise the powers if Mr Hunt were incapacitated. Under the protocols proposed, that junior minister would need to consult other relevant ministers including the [prime minister] before exercising the powers. In any case, I don’t imagine any junior minister would exercise these powers without consulting the [prime minister].

The report found that Lewis’ reservations weren’t passed onto the prime minister’s office or department. 

Even if the reservations had been passed on, it’s very likely the concerns would have been dismissed.

The report offered multiple accounts that the clear message coming from Morrison’s office was that it didn’t want junior ministers to act in the role (ministers he put in those positions).

It wanted that power with the prime minister, powers Bell found Morrison could have obtained “in a matter of minutes” if a minister had been incapacitated.

Scott Morrison looks into the distance, standing beside Greg Hunt and Brendan Murphy at podia with microphones
Neither Greg Hunt, left, nor Brendan Murphy were officially told when Scott Morrison gained Health Department powers. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

The perception of a cover up

Morrison points to the dark days of early 2020, when the world was ending as Australians knew it, as the reason why he needed more powers.

But that fails to account for what happened a year later when he took power at the Treasury, Home Affairs and Resources departments.

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