Two journalists, Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers, are soon to publish a book entitled Plagued, dealing with the Morrison Government’s response to COVID-19. The part of the book making headlines currently is the claim that Mr Morrison swore himself into various government ministries, without his colleagues’ knowledge. I want to look at a few articles dealing with this issue and offer some analysis.
The following is taken from a Sydney Morning Herald piece, and outlines what Mr. Morrison is alleged to have done
Morrison secretly swore himself into the health and finance portfolios…News.com.au has subsequently reported Morrison was also sworn in as second resources minister
So, three additional portfolios. One wonders if he was compensated according to the salaries for those portfolios, but that is an issue for another time. More to the point is the suggestion that he ‘swore himself in’. Our Constitution is quite clear: it is Their Excellency the Governor General who swears ministers in. Mr. Morrison’s high opinion of himself is well known, but this is ridiculous. If he truly did swear himself into these additional portfolios, he usurped the authority of the Governor General.
The Law Responds, Part One: The Office of The Governor General
In response to these frankly explosive allegations, the office of the Governor General issued a statement, which says, in part,
The Governor-General, following normal process and acting on the advice of the government of the day, appointed former prime minister Morrison to administer portfolios other than the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The appointments were made consistently with section 64 of the Constitution
There is an interesting element of buck-passing there: Hurley acted on the advice of the government of the day. This essentially places the blame on Mr Morrison and his government. As if any further evidence were needed that the Governor General is a ceremonial figurehead. More to the point though, let us consider Section 64 of The Consitution Act of 1901. I am no constitutional scholar, and we will go to Professor Anne Twomey in a moment, but I want to look at this for myself.
Section 64 reads, in full
The Governor-General may appoint officers to administer such departments of State of the Commonwealth as the Governor-General in Council may establish.
Such officers shall hold office during the pleasure of the Governor-General. They shall be members of the Federal Executive Council, and shall be the Queen’s Ministers of State for the Commonwealth.
It is somewhat archaic, but the point seems to be that the Governor General appoints officers of state (ministers) to their portfolios. Further, since those ministers serve at the pleasure of the Governor General, they may dismiss them at any time. The demarcation of authority is clear: the Prime Minister does not have the authority to swear himself into any position.
The Law Responds, Part Two: Professor Anne Twomey
The ABC, specifically Radio National, interviewed renowned Constitutional Law expert Professor Anne Twomey recently. I want to deal first with a remarkable example of bias from a clip of an interview with current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
The clip runs as follows
Interviewer: Have you been briefed about how many other portfolios the Prime Minister swore himself into?
Did you catch it? Australian Prime Ministers are not, as much as Mr Morrison thinks they are, like US Presidents. They are not referred to as Prime Minister after they leave office. No talks about Prime Minister John Howard, or Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Mr Albanese and his troops have been in office for months now. Kindly acknowledge the result of the election and show a little respect.
Now to Professor Twomey. She notes that since the Governor General acts on the advice of the Prime Minister, unless the Prime Minister told him to do something that was unlawful, he cannot be blamed. An interesting take: should the Governor General not be aware of his responsibilities and duties and any restrictions on his actions? Regardless of that, she notes that there is a lack of clarity in legislation around which minister administers which part of which law. Further, finding these details requires an inception-level investigation. This seemingly makes something like what Morrison is alleged to have done possible, if not easier to pull off.
Dissent in The Ranks: The Opposition Piles on Morrison
Members of the Liberal Party have responded variously to these accusations. Naturally, current Opposition Leader Peter Dutton defended his master and said that Mr Morrison ‘had his reasons’. Others were not so forgiving.
Current Nationals Leader David Littleproud gave this response to the allegations, noting that he did not know about Mr Morrison’s alleged actions
That’s pretty ordinary, as far as I’m concerned. If you have a cabinet government, you trust your cabinet. You create that environment in the cabinet room to have those discussions. If you don’t think a minister’s suitable to do that, that’s a discussion with the minister [and you] probably ask him or her to remove themselves
Mr Little proud advocates, rightly, for a consultative process. This seems to fit a cabinet-based model of government. Essentially, Mr Littleproud castigated Morrison as an autocrat, concentrating power in himself. Littleproud also seems annoyed with not being kept in the loop, and understandably so.
A second National, Kevin Hogan, said this to the echo-chamber of choice, Sky so-called News
The pandemic meant some conventions were thrown out the window but I look forward to the rationale for those being explained
Conventions? The Governor General appointing and swearing in ministers is a convention? It is the damned law of the land! Even accounting for the pandemic, rather than throwing the law out the window as Morrison is alleged to have done, you adapt. Have the Governor General swear in would-be ministers over Zoom or something similar. It is difficult to conclude that this situation is not the culmination of Mr Morrison’s career: self-appointed supreme power. But what does the alleged autocrat of the hour have to say for himself?
The Would-Be King Speaks: Morrison Responds
It should come as a surprise to precisely no-one that Mr Morrison defended his actions. This section is based on an article from MSN.
Going on one of the other echo-chambers of choice, radio 2GB, Mr Morrison said, in regard to specifically taking over the Social Services portfolio
I don’t recall that … I don’t dispute that and my answer for all that is the same, we were dealing with an incredible amount of discretion and money being paid.
They were unprecedented times and as a result they were very unconventional times.
Fortunately, none of these [appointments] in the case of the finance and the health portfolio were ever required to be used
As usual with Mr Morrison, there is much to unpack. The phrase ‘I don’t recall’ immediately makes a politician look suspicious, regardless of what actually happened. But he does not deny that he assumed control of the social services portfolio, even if he does not recall doing it. He is actually going through multiple stages of crisis management in one go: I do not know if I did it, but if I did it I was justified. Many birds, one stone; you get the idea. Unprecedented times, he says. Perhaps, but as I argued above, adapting the law to circumstances, rather than jettisoning it entirely in an authoritarian personal power grab, is, to put it mildly, strongly preferred.
Finally, the fact that none of the appointments actually needed to be used is a red herring. You still did it. You still blatantly subverted the very system under which the nation is governed.
Please note that this is not me doing the whole ‘civilitah, good Sir’ norm-humping that so many seem to do these days. Such is not my purpose. Scott John Morrison is alleged to have subverted not only the Constitution, but the very Westminster system purely for personal gain. Any claim of pragmatism is rendered nonsense by the fact that the powers were not used.
Beyond the Pandemic: Morrison’s New Powers
Following on from the previous paragraph about pragmatism, Morrison’s own actions belie that claim too. The previously referenced MSN piece says that Morrison also took over the Resources portfolio from the aptly named Keith Pitt. The issue is a petroleum license on the NSW coast
“That was a very different issue … it was one I sought to be the decision-maker on that issue because of the importance of that issue,” Mr Morrison said.
“This is a power a minister has that is not overseen by cabinet … the minister makes their own decision and the prime minister can’t direct the minister.”
“I always respected Keith’s role as the decision-maker, and if I wanted to be the decision-maker, I had to take the steps that I took.”
This took place in 2021, and had, in Morrison’s own words, nothing to do with the. pandemic. He just wanted to make the decision because it was an important issue. Since he was not able to directly instruct the minister on how to act, he simply seized control of the portfolio. Finally, to claim to have respected Pitt’s role as the decision maker is clearly crap, since you robbed him of that power. Morrison is full of crap once again.
Conclusion: What is to be Done?
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is being briefed regularly on these issues. If ever there was a situation custom-built for a federal investigative body such as ICAC, this is it. So blatant a personal power grab violates not only meaningless norms, but also the very rule of law itself. To whom was Morrison accountable? If he could simply swear himself into positions sua sponte, he was effectively a king.
To end on a lighter note, if a empire is ruled by an Emperor, and a kingdom is ruled by a King, Australia was a country ruled by Scott Morrison…
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