“It was unbecoming, it was cynical and it was just weird that this has occurred, and Australians will be scratching their heads.”
Admittedly, this style of attack requires some revision of Labor’s constant criticism of the former prime minister for not taking enough responsibility, weaponised by relentlessly repeating Morrison’s lamentable excuse about “not holding a hose” after taking holidays during the bushfire crisis.
“We all know Scott Morrison had trouble doing the job he had. Perhaps it was because of the jobs we didn’t know he had,” Albanese said.
It gives Albanese another opportunity to denounce ‘tinpot activity’ rather than the traditional cabinet government he intends to lead.
But Labor MPs are not the only ones sounding shocked at such prime ministerial intervention. According to Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers, the authors of Plagued and journalists at The Australianthe then-prime minister didn’t inform most colleagues about having himself appointed in 2020 to multiple portfolios including health minister, finance minister – and a year later – resources minister.
An outraged sounding Albanian said he would get advice on “trashing of the Westminster system” before making further decisions as – unlike the Morrison government – his government would operate in an orderly, transparent way. The former prime minister clearly is the political gift who keeps on giving when it comes to Labor’s ability to keep blaming the failures and misjudgments of its predecessor.
But Coalition MPs are also expressing dismay and disapproval. The secrecy involved undermines the obvious rationale for the prime minister to ensure it was not only Greg Hunt with absolute authority over new emergency health measures.
The authors write Morrison believed more checks and balances were needed before any single minister could wield such powers, as well as allowing an alternative source of authority if the minister were incapacitated by COVID-19.
The solution agreed on with then-attorney-general Christian Porter was to swear in Morrison alongside Hunt as a back-up but also as a countervailing power if required. It wasn’t.
But at least the former health minister was aware of Morrison’s extra portfolio. Mathias Cormann was apparently not informed he was also sharing his finance ministry responsibilities.
Nor was Keith Pitt, then-minister for resources, aware until several months later that in April 2021, Morrison had also been sworn in by the governor-general as industry, science, energy and resources minister. This seems to have been far less to do with a pandemic response and more a matter of political insurance against the prospect of a pro-development Nationals minister wanting to approve gas exploration licenses off the coast of NSW.
Any such development was bitterly opposed by NSW MPs already threatened by campaigns by Labor and independent demanding more action on climate change. Ahead of the election, Morrison announced the offshore gas exploration would not proceed.
“What’s very clear is that this was a sign of no confidence by Scott Morrison in the Morrison government,” Albanese said mockingly, “…because he didn’t allow ministers to do their job.
“We do have a non-presidential system of government in this country. But what we had from Scott Morrison is a centralization of power, this overriding of ministerial decisions and all done in secret.”
The controversy has already dragged in Governor-General David Hurley. He issued a statement saying he was following normal process in acting on the advice of the prime minister, stating it was not uncommon for ministers to be appointed to administer departments other than their portfolio responsibility.
But, Hurley pointedly noted, questions about making and publicizing such appointments were up to the government of the day.
Unlike Morrison, the Liberal ministers involved – Hunt, Cormann and Porter – are no longer in parliament. Nationals leader David Littleproud is making plain his view of Morrison’s “pretty ordinary” behavior and lack of respect for cabinet process.
Albanese will be keen to pursue Liberal leader Peter Dutton, instantly demanding explanations of what he and other continuing members of the Coalition ministry knew about the arrangements.
The obvious attack lines write themselves.
“Australians knew the election campaign that I was running a shadow ministry,” Albanese argued during the election campaign. “What they didn’t know was that Scott Morrison was running a shadow government. A shadow government that was operating in the shadows.”
The consequences were less damaging in practice than this suggests, given Morrison didn’t actually take over running health and finance. But even if the result is legal, it’s hardly politically smart. It gives Albanian another useful opportunity to denounce “tinpot activity” rather than the traditional cabinet government he intends to lead.
To the public, it just looks odd – another unpopular, unnecessary legacy of an overly self-confident prime minister always convinced he knew best.