Shortcuts / 25 August 2022

Scott Morrison’s multiple ministries

We’re currently going through a pretty extraordinary period in Australian politics, with revelations that former PM Scott Morrison secretly appointed himself as a minister to 5 key portfolios. So in this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we’ll answer all the big questions on how and why this happened, how are we governed in Australia, and who calls the shots in our Parliament.

So is this all a pretty big deal?
The word ‘unprecedented’ gets thrown around, but when it comes to then-PM Scott Morrison secretly swearing himself in as a minister to 5 portfolios between 2020 and 2021, it is unprecedented.

What does Morrison have to say about it?
He says the pandemic was a huge crisis and that he was just making sure all bases were covered when he was secretly sworn into ministries like Health and Finance. But it has raised many questions about exactly how our government is supposed to be run.

Go on, then…
A good place to start is with the Constitution. The Constitution allows for 3 things: the Parliament; the Executive (which is what we think of as ‘the government’); and the Judiciary.

How do those 3 arms work?
The idea is that each of them keeps a check on the power of the others.

Give me an example, please…
Only because you asked nicely. Let’s go back to 1998 when the Howard Government drafted legislation to bring in the GST. It had to negotiate and amend that legislation to get it passed by parliament. Then the High Court’s role was to hear challenges to how that tax was applied.

So your point is…
The government proposes policies and laws, the parliament is the body that approves those laws, and then the courts enforce them.

And that’s all laid out in the Constitution, right?
Not exactly… The Constitution spells out some of the details, but there’s a lot that happens in governing that relies on customs and conventions rather than anything that’s written down in black and white. For example, the Constitution doesn’t mention the prime minister or cabinet – it assumes we will follow the traditions of England. 

You’re referring to the Westminster system?
Yep, and that means that the people running the government and parliament have to be elected. That’s quite different to a presidential system. For example, in the US, the president can veto bills passed by Congress – that’s something an Aussie PM cannot do.

Gotcha. So back to Oz, how does one become a minister?
First of all, you must be elected to parliament. You also usually need to be a member of the party that’s won government. We say ‘usually’ because it is possible for a government to appoint ministers from other parties or independents. But let’s not go down that rabbit hole… 

OK, so I’m elected to parliament and belong to a party that’s won government… 
So the leader is sworn in as PM, and then it’s up to them who is appointed to the ministry – sort of…

Sort of?
Well, the Coalition and Labor do it a bit differently… In a Liberal/National government the PM (aka Liberal Party leader) gets captain’s picks when it comes to Liberal ministers. And with the leader of the Nationals becoming the Deputy PM, they pick a handful of their MPs to join the ministry as well.

And on the Labor side?
Its parliamentary party is called the caucus – and it has a factional system based on MPs identifying themselves as ‘left’, ‘centre’ or ‘right’. And those factions across different states each get a certain number of spots on the ministry.

Hang on, so Labor PMs don’t pick their ministry?
Nope. The factional leaders tell the leader which people will be their reps in the ministry. What the leader decides is which portfolio those people get.

Then what happens?
It’s then off to Government House for a swearing-in ceremony with the Governor-General. This happens under Section 64 of the Constitution. And that’s ordinarily done publicly with TV coverage and everything. The ministerial arrangements are also published in the Commonwealth Gazette – that’s the official place for publishing the decisions and actions of a government.

Ok, so I’ve been sworn in as a minister – what’s next?
Well, first of all, congrats… And second – you’ve just scored yourself a big job. From the day ministers are sworn in, they get a whole range of powers. It depends on the portfolio but let’s take the Immigration Minister and the Migration Act as an example.

Go on…
So when world #1 tennis player Novak Djokovic tried to come to play in the Australian Open without getting a COVID vaccine, it was the minister who cancelled his visa. That’s a power the minister has under the Migration Act if they think it’s in the public interest.

Could the PM cancel a visa?
No. And this is an important point – under the Westminster system, it’s the minister who has powers designated to their portfolio, not the prime minister. 

So being a minister is a big job…
Yep, and when you become a minister, there’s a whole system you’re plugged into. There are duties to discharge and rules to follow – and a lot of conventions that ministers before you have followed too.

I think I can see why the Morrison thing has blown up…
Nice segue. So to recap, it started in March 2020 when COVID was a new thing. The pandemic gave the Health minister some extraordinary powers under the Biosecurity Act. In those days, the minister was Greg Hunt, and given the circumstances, he agreed that Morrison should be a backup in that role. So Hunt was in on it, but the arrangement wasn’t publicly announced. 

Ok, what about the others?
So a couple of weeks after the Health appointment, Morrison did the same with the Finance portfolio, but he didn’t tell then-Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. And then, nearly a year after COVID came to our shores, Morrison swore himself into the Industry, Science, Energy and Resources portfolio in April 2021.

Which had nothing to do with the pandemic…
No, and we know he used that power to overrule Resources Minister Keith Pitt over a plan to drill for gas off the NSW coast. He says he was worried about the environment, but political pundits say he was worried that it would be bad for several Liberal MPs and election hopefuls there.

That’s 3 appointments down… What about the other 2?
So those were on the same day – 6 May 2021. That’s when Morrison appointed himself to the Treasury and Home Affairs portfolios without telling those ministers, including good mate Josh Frydenberg.

So the element of secrecy keeps coming up…
And Governor-General David Hurley has copped some flack for signing off on these arrangements and not making the appointments public. In response, his office issued a pretty blunt statement – which is unusual for them – saying “It is not the responsibility of the Governor-General to advise the broader ministry or parliament (or public) of administrative changes of this nature.”

What did PM Anthony Albanese do with this information?
He asked the Solicitor-General – the Commonwealth’s most senior lawyer – to look into it. And Stephen Donaghue QC was scathing about the whole affair.

What did he say?
That Morrison did not break the law, but he said the ministerial appointments went against the principles of responsible government inherent in the Constitution. He says the fact Morrison didn’t notify Parliament, other ministers, or the public about the arrangements is bad form – and bad for good government.

So what’s going to change?
Albanese says he’s going to make changes to ensure this never happens again. He’s asked his department to work with the Governor-General’s office to immediately create a practice of publishing ministerial arrangements in the Gazette. And there could be legislation down the track.

And a political saga is never complete without an inquiry…
Bingo… And there will be an inquiry that will be led by an eminent legal eagle, but what that looks like is still TBC. 

And what does Morrison say?
That he will participate in “any genuine process to learn the lessons from the pandemic”.

So you’ll let me know when there’s an update?
We’ve got you. 

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