In the more than a week since The Australian reporter Benson revealed Morrison’s “shadow cabinet”, the former Australian prime minister, who left office for three months, has been at the center of a “political storm”. During his tenure as prime minister, Morrison was secretly sworn in as ministers in five key ministries. On August 17, local time, the official website of the Australian Prime Minister and Cabinet Department announced the appointment letter signed by the Governor, confirming this.
On the same day, Prime Minister Albanese told a news conference that “this is no small matter” because Morrison’s actions “undermined parliamentary government, undermined the Westminster system, undermined the principles of accountability in our democracy.”
On August 22, the Australian government received advice from the Solicitor General on the legality of Morrison’s secret role as a key minister. Speaking earlier about the judicial advice, Albanese reiterated that the government would consider an investigation into Morrison’s secretive stint as a key minister and would consider reforms to ensure the practices were not repeated.
Confusing covert operation
At the beginning of 2020, the new crown epidemic ravaged the world. The Australian government announced that the “Biosecurity Law” came into effect, and the country entered a state of emergency. Morrison was secretly sworn in as health and finance ministers around the time the Biosecurity Act came into effect. In April and May 2021, he successively assumed three key positions, including energy minister, interior minister and treasury minister, until he lost the election in May 2022. During this period, most of the cabinet colleagues, the entire parliament and the public were kept in the dark.
Benson’s revelations set off an uproar in Australian politics. Under pressure from public opinion, Morrison held a three-hour press conference on August 17, trying to defend himself. He apologised to ministers and colleagues who had been kept in the dark but “doesn’t regret his decision at all”, while refusing to resign as MP.
Morrison told a news conference that no prime minister has ever faced the multiple challenges of the new crown epidemic, drought and recession at the same time. Therefore, during these “extraordinary times”, he has made “decisions that are in the national interest to ensure that the government continues to function well”. “The risk of ministers being incapacitated, sick, hospitalised, unable to do their jobs and even dying at a critical moment is very real,” Morrison said in a lengthy statement on social media.
”For the public, the media and the Opposition . For example, I have a daily public inquiry as Prime Minister, so I am responsible for everything that happened at the time, every drop of rain that fell, every virus that spread, everything,” Morrison said. , from this perspective, he expressed “very satisfied” with his decision.
As for why he has kept the ministers under wraps for so long, Morrison also has his own explanation, saying that “I don’t want it to affect their confidence.” Morrison also said: “The fact that I have not interfered with the work of the ministers shows that I confidence in them.”
So far, there is indeed no evidence that Morrison has used ministerial privileges to interfere with ministers in the performance of their duties. Information released by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet shows that Morrison was secretly sworn in as health minister on March 14, 2020, four days before the entry into force of the Biosecurity Act. The affidavit, signed by Governor-General David Hurley, reads: “I, Hurley, the Governor-General of Australia, under the powers vested in me in Section 64 of the Constitution, appoint Morrison, a member of the Federal Executive Council, as Minister of Health.” The decision was backed by then-Attorney General Porter, but then-Health Secretary Hunt was only informed after the oath took effect.
A spokesman for Hurley told reporters in an email that under the Constitution, Morrison’s appointment as a minister was “valid” and did not require an inauguration. In addition, the Governor approves the “Government Recommendation on Appointments” in accordance with the process, and it is up to the government to decide whether to disclose the appointment.
Morrison told a news conference that under Australia’s Biosecurity Act, the Minister of Health has major powers related to public health, including closing borders and ordering quarantines. Therefore, he and Hunter became health ministers together to ensure that the government could function properly in the event that Hunter contracted the new crown.
Morrison was secretly sworn in as Treasurer on March 30, 2020, when the Biosecurity Act came into force. According to the bill, the Ministry of Finance is responsible for carrying out huge economic stimulus plans during the epidemic and is a key functional department. For the appointment, Morrison defended at a news conference that he only wanted to provide “support” to then Treasurer Coleman. However, Coleman did not learn of Morrison’s silent “support” until August this year. So far, Coleman has not made a public statement on this.
On April 15 and May 6, 2021, Morrison took on the positions of Energy Minister, Home Affairs Minister and Treasurer. Among them, the most controversial are the two important positions of Minister of the Interior and Minister of the Treasury. In Australia, the Treasurer is responsible for the government’s fiscal policy and budget and is generally considered the second most important minister in the government after the Prime Minister. And the powerful Department of the Interior is responsible for matters such as national security, federal law enforcement, immigration and border control. Like his previous appointments, Morrison did not inform then Home Affairs Minister Andrews and Treasurer Frydenberg.
On August 16 this year, Andrews held a press conference to issue a public statement asking Morrison to resign from Parliament. She is also the only former minister of the current five ministers to publicly criticise Morrison.
“There is a problem with the system itself”
The words most used by Australian politicians and political observers for Morrison’s behavior were “weird” and “confused”. Australian constitution expert, Sydney University law professor Toomey said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that the relevant law provides that the cabinet can be replaced by other ministers when a minister is incapacitated, so she told Morrison. “You really don’t know what’s wrong with this group of people, everything has to be done in secret.”
In Australia’s history, there has indeed been a precedent for a prime minister to be a minister at the same time. Between 1945 and 1949, Australia’s “World War II leader” Benedict Chifley served as both Prime Minister and Treasurer. But Morrison’s peculiarity is that he has held five concurrent ministerial positions during his tenure in office, and the appointment process is done in secret, neither through cabinet discussions nor public announcements in the news media or the official gazette as is customary.
As a former British colony, Australia, like the United Kingdom, implements the Westminster political system. The cabinet is the real authority in the government, consisting of the Prime Minister and ministers from key ministries. According to convention, the cabinet holds a private meeting every week to discuss major issues for decision-making and to be accountable to parliament. This is what Prime Minister Albanese calls an “accountability” mechanism. On the one hand, Morrison bypasses the discussion at the cabinet meeting and is directly sworn in by the governor, which threatens the political status of the cabinet in the decision-making process, which is not in line with the long-term democratic political tradition; on the other hand, as the representative of the Queen’s power in Australia, the governor Just a nominal head of state and needs to react on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It is puzzling and disturbing that Governor Hurley has “ignored” the fact that he has appointed Morrison five times in his work log.
Australian upper house member Hughbridge told the British “Guardian” on August 20: “When the Governor hype up the sash for the sheepdog champion, but he kept quiet about the appointment of the former prime minister, you know (the system) itself. Something went wrong.” After Benson disclosed Morrison’s “shadow cabinet”, Hurley also made a conscious “cut”. A spokesman for Hurley said in a statement that “there is no reason to believe that the appointment will not be made public” and believes that confidentiality should be the responsibility of the Morrison government and not within its purview.
For such an embarrassing situation, the Australian political and legal circles have also responded. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on August 19 that the Albanes government will investigate the legality of Morrison’s actions, including seeking judicial advice from the government’s attorney general. One possible outcome of the investigation is to amend legislation to ensure such situations never happen again. But on the other hand, if there is no evidence that Morrison’s actions were illegal, the investigation is likely to end in vain.
In addition, a motion of reprimand against Morrison is likely to be tabled when Parliament resumes in September. But the censure motion is just a written resolution condemning the MP’s actions, and it does not force Morrison to resign as MP. More importantly, once Morrison quits parliament, his opposition party will have to hold an election for the seat, and the current situation is very unfavorable for the opposition party. Therefore, Opposition Leader Dutton has not expressed his desire to resign Morrison. However, this incident has caused strong doubts and reflections on the issue of the power boundary between ministers and prime ministers in the implementation of the “Biosafety Law” at the political, legal and public levels in Australia.
At present, the “political storm” triggered by the disclosure of Morrison’s concurrent ministerial position is still fermenting, and the issue of its legality has not yet been determined. It remains to be seen whether the investigation can make substantial progress as to what the consequences of waiting for Morrison will be.