In a long and rambling statement posted to Facebook, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended his actions in seizing control of five ministries simultaneously. In a similar fashion to my response to John Howard’s character reference for George Pell (which I think is also available on this site), I want to analyse and deconstruct Mr. Morrison’s defence. This will be a long one, folks.
The Statement, Part One: Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures
Morrison opens up his statement with the following:
The devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated recession required an unprecedented policy response from our Government.
These were extraordinary times and they required extraordinary measures to respond. Our Government’s overriding objective was to save lives and livelihoods, which we achieved. To achieve this we needed to ensure continuity of government and robust administrative arrangements to deal with the unexpected in what was a period of constant uncertainty during the nation’s biggest crisis outside of wartime.
The situation required an unprecedented policy response from the government. Hanged by your own words. The government was required to put forth an unprecedented policy response. Not you as an individual. You were a member of a team. Second, how can you simultaneously claim that there was a recession and that you saved livelihoods? Finally for this section, continuity of government and establishing ‘robust administrative arrangements’ means putting in place deputy ministers, acting ministers or assistant ministers. These are people who can fulfil the role of the minister in the event of their incapacitation. The response is not to engage in a personal power grab. Extraordinary times required extraordinary measures, yes, but not to serve your own selfish ends.
The Statement, Part Two: Red Herrings
Ever a master of distraction, Morrison’s statement contains multiple red herrings, as the next section demonstrates:
Information and advice changed daily and even hourly. Meetings with Ministers, officials and advisers were constant, as was liaison with industry and other stakeholders as we were dealing with everything from supply chain shocks to business closures, the overwhelming of the social security and hospital system and the sourcing of critical medical supplies and workforce.
The prospect of civil disruption, extensive fatalities and economic collapse was real, especially in the early stages, which was occurring in other parts of the world.
The risk of Ministers becoming incapacitated, sick, hospitalised, incapable of doing their work at a critical hour or even fatality was very real. The Home Affairs Minister was struck down with COVID-19 early in the pandemic and the UK Prime Minister was on a ventilator and facing the very real prospect of dying of COVID-19
If the situation were as chaotic as he makes out (which, in fairness, it was) and the information was changing as rapidly as he says, should he not have had more hands rather than concentrating power in fewer? His own rationalisation does not work: a chaotic situation requires more people involved, not less. Next.
The red herrings continue when he discusses ministers in both his and the UK government coming down with the virus. As referenced above, this is what assistant, deputy and acting ministers are for. Also, any ministers in Johnson’s government suffering from COVID are irrelevant to discussions of your power grab in Australia. The other major flaw in his reasoning is what if he himself had contracted the virus? If he truly was the indispensable minister because of the risk to others from the plague, how utterly stuffed would the government have been if he had COVID? Once again, his rationalisation does not work.
The Statement, Part Three: The Garbage Continues
Morrison continues with this:
The Parliament was suspended from sitting for a time and Cabinet and others meetings were unable to be held face to face, as occurred with businesses and the public more generally.
As Prime Minister I considered it necessary to put in place safeguards, redundancies and contingencies to ensure the continuity and effective operation of Government during this crisis period, which extended for the full period of my term.
To ensure oversight, the Government, with the support of the Opposition, established a concurrent public Senate Inquiry into the management of COVID that effectively ran for the duration of my term as Prime Minister.
Even if the meetings were unable to be held face to face, this is why video conferencing apps such as Zoom were invented. As I said in the last piece, you adapt convention and the law to circumstances rather than simply destroy them. Blaming the plague for your inability to do your job only goes so far. Further, you speak of safeguards and redundancies. Even if I buy the idea that such contingencies were necessary (ministers fall sick for various reasons all the time; such would be worse in a pandemic), this does not extend to vastly increasing your own personal power.
Finally, this oversight committee that you set up evidently was not effective since it somehow missed you swearing yourself into various ministries. Oh and nice attempt to blame the opposition there, too, but I see through it. You don’t get to blame the opposition here, Scotty, this is all on you.
The Statement, Part Four: Res Gestae Scotti Marketi (The Achievements of Scotty from Marketing)
The former Prime Minister continues:
In addition I took the precaution of being given authority to administer various departments of state should the need arise due to incapacity of a Minister or in the national interest. This was done in relation to departments where Ministers were vested with specific powers under their legislation that were not subject to oversight by Cabinet, including significant financial authorities.
Given the significant nature of many of these powers I considered this to be a prudent and responsible action as Prime Minister.
It is not uncommon for multiple Ministers to be sworn to administer the same Department. However, given that such additional Ministers were in a more junior position in the relevant Departments, and would not be familiar with all the details of the pandemic response, I considered it appropriate that the redundancy be put in place at a higher level within the Government and not at a more junior level.
Augustus would have been proud of that first sentence. You took the precaution of being given authority? This was forced on you? Oh get that garbage outta here!
The first sentence here is fascinating for another reason: did you see the subtle shift? The inclusion of ‘or in the national interest’ essentially generalises the extraordinary powers Morrison granted himself beyond the pandemic. The rationale here is seemingly contradictory. He seized control of these portfolios (purely as a precaution) because ‘Ministers were vested with specific powers…that were not subject to oversight by Cabinet’. Seriously? So because there was no Cabinet oversight of Ministerial action, you seized their portfolios? The mind reels!
He mentions the existence of additional ministers (deputies, assistants etc) but notes their junior status and consequent lack of familiarity with the details. The obvious follow-up here is why not bring them into the briefings? Why not bring the most senior active representative of a department into the briefings so they can become familiar with the details? It is not as though political convention was sacred to you.
The Statement, Part Five: Scotty on The Details
Mr Morrison finally gets to the point of what happened: his many ministries:
The major Department for which this was considered was the Health Department, given the extensive powers afforded to the Minister by the Biosecurity Act. This was put in place on March 14, 2020. The Department of Finance was added on March 30, 2020.
As an added administrative precaution, as a ‘belts and braces’ approach, the Departments of Treasury and Home Affairs were added some time after in May 2021. I did not consider it was likely that it would be necessary to exercise powers in these areas, but the future was very difficult to predict during the pandemic.
As events demonstrated with the resurgence of COVID-19 in the second half of 2021, we could never take certainty for granted. In hindsight these arrangements were unnecessary and until seeking advice from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet today, I had not recollected these arrangements having been put in place. There was a lot going on at the time.
It is true that then Health Minister Greg Hunt did have issues with his health, but once again, deputies and other junior associates exist. It was not necessary to concentrate his power in yourself. Finance and Treasury both had representatives inside your administration, at least one of whom (minister Cormann) did not know that you had seized his portfolio. In addition, is Home Affairs not separate from the pandemic? Your statement that you did not consider that these powers would need to be used renders curious your decision to take on these portfolios in the first place.
Finally, for this section, we have the classic ‘I do not recall’, which is political speak for ‘this happened but I don’t want to admit it’. Parasite. You do not recall being in charge control of five ministries simultaneously!? Just about the only true thing in this entire statement is the statement ‘these arrangements were unnecessary’. For once, Mr. Morrison, we agree, but for different reasons.
The Statement, Part Six: An Irrational Rationale
This rambling and incoherent justification continues with this:
Thankfully it was not necessary for me to trigger use of any of these powers. In the event that I would have to use such powers I would have done so disclosing the authority by which I was making such decisions. The authority was pre approved to ensure there would be no delay in being able to make decisions or take actions should the need arise.
The crisis was a highly dynamic environment and it was important to plan ahead and take what precautions could lawfully be put in place to ensure I could act, as Prime Minister, if needed.
It is important to note that throughout this time Ministers in all Departments, where I was provided with authority to act, exercised full control of their Departments and portfolios without intervention. Ministerial briefs were not copied to me as Prime Minister in a co-Minister capacity, as this was not the nature of the arrangement. These arrangements were there as a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ safeguard.
I also did not wish Ministers to be second guessing themselves or for there to be the appearance of a right of appeal or any diminishing of their authority to exercise their responsibilities, as this was not the intention of putting these arrangements in place. I simply wanted them to get on with their job, which they did admirably and I am grateful for their service.
The former Prime Minister is an eel. He did not have to use the powers, but if he did he would have disclosed the authority by which he acted. In other words, he was totally justified in keeping this power-grab secret because he never had to use the powers. He says again that the situation was dynamic and that safeguards needed to be in place, and my response is the same: assistants, deputies etc.
The second paragraph of this section is fascinating. Morrison says Ministers exercised their full authority without intervention. Fine, but he then admits that he himself did not receive copies of ministerial briefings. Earlier in his statement, he claimed that more junior members of the government would not be across the details and so it was necessary to put the fail-safes in higher levels of government. But then he admits he was not briefed. So how could he be across the details if he ever needed to exercise the power of a given ministry? If it truly was a ‘break glass in case of emergency situation, having someone not across the details of a situation as the fail-safe is at best useless, and at worst could cause the situation to deteriorate. This rationale is garbage.
The Statement, Part Seven: Jumping in the [Keith] Pitt
In reference to taking over the Resources and Energy Portfolio, Mr Morrison said that:
The decision in relation to the Department of Industry, Energy and Resources was undertaken in April 2021 for separate reasons. This was the consequence of my decision to consider the issues of the PEP11 license directly. Under the legislation the decision is not taken by Cabinet, but unilaterally by a Minister with authority to administer that Department.
I sought and was provided with the authority to administer matters in relation to this Department and considered this issue observing all the necessary advice and issues pertaining to the matter before making a decision, without prejudice, which I announced publicly.
Once having been given the authority to consider this matter I advised the Minister of my intention to do so and proceeded to consider the matter. I retained full confidence in Minister Pitt who I was pleased to have serve in my Ministry. 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.
The first sentence here says much: this decision was utterly separate from the pandemic and the associated crisis. Mr. Morrison just wanted a particular outcome and, since he could not direct the minister explicitly, he took the decision himself. Perhaps he should have tried to persuade Mr Pitt instead of grabbing power for himself. Also, why was it necessary to state that he made his decision ‘without prejudice’? Every decision Scott Morrison makes is (in my opinion) motivated by some external force (typically money). Finally, it is curious indeed that the only time he actually used his powers had nothing to do with the pandemic. Shock Doctrine, anyone?
The Statement, Part Eight: Conclusion
Morrison ends his rantings with the following
The use of the powers by a Prime Minister to exercise authority to administer Departments has clearly caused concern. I regret this, but acted in good faith in a crisis.
I used such powers on one occasion only. I did not seek to interfere with Ministers in the conduct of their portfolio as there were no circumstances that warranted their use, except in the case of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources which I have explained.
The pandemic has been a difficult time for Australia, although we have performed better than almost any other developed country in the world. There is no guide book in these circumstances and there is much commentary that will be offered in hindsight from the comfort of relatively calmer conditions. It is not surprising that some of this commentary will have a partisan or other motive, but that’s politics. In a democracy it is a positive thing for these issues to be discussed and for experience to inform future decisions and I hope my statement will help inform that process.
I have endeavoured to set out the context and reasoning for the decisions I took as Prime Minister in a highly unusual time. I did so in good faith, seeking to exercise my responsibilities as Prime Minister which exceeded those of any other member of the Government, or Parliament. For any offence to my colleagues I apologise. I led an outstanding team who did an excellent job and provided me great service and loyalty as Ministers.
The concern is not the use of Prime Ministerial power to administer various departments, but how you achieved this. You swore yourself into these various roles. I know you say you ‘sought authority’, but the sheer volume of lies you have told in the past makes any claim you make difficult to believe. Further, to claim that you acted in good faith is laughable. Alternatives to a vast expansion of Prime Ministerial power were available. To suggest that your intentions were pure is ludicrous.
You say that Australia has performed ‘better than almost any country in the world’. By what metric? In what way? That statement was almost Trumpian in its vagueness. Further, to claim that commentary and analysis have a partisan motive is an attempt to poison the well, delegitimising any criticism of your plainly unconstitutional actions as mere partisan hackery. It is entirely possible to be critical of you (as some of your colleagues, including former Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews, have been) without being partisan. Kindly cease conflating the two.
The final insult to the electorate within this barrage of nonsense is the phrase ‘for any offence to my colleagues, I apologise’. So you apologise to your fellow Liberals, but not to the nation as a whole? It is truly remarkable that you can make a statement like that and accuse your critics of partisanship. Get that garbage outta here! Finally, you did not lead ‘an outstanding team’. You led what was possibly the most incompetent, corrupt (in my opinion), cruel and destructive government in the history of the country.
Conclusion: The End of Scott Morrison
The former Prime Minister may spin this any way he likes, it does not look good. Swearing one’s self into several ministries (while not being briefed) in a blatant usurpation of Executive Authority vested in the Governor General renders both your and his positions untenable. It falls to you, Scott Morrison, to emulate that last iota of patriotism that Richard Nixon displayed on August 9th, 1974:
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