ScoMo’s secret dysfunction
18 August 2022
Revelations that former Prime Minister Scott Morrison secretly had himself sworn in as minister in five key portfolios, namely: Treasury, Finance, Health, Home Affairs and Industry, Science and Resources – all bar one without the knowledge of his cabinet colleagues – has led to varying reactions.
Several of his former colleagues have called upon him to resign from the Parliament, others have dismissed it as a storm in a teacup.
As for Morrison himself, he has conceded his secret appointments to Treasury and Home affairs were ‘unnecessary’ and he apologised to colleagues offended by his actions.
As reported in The Australian, in an extensive defence of his decisions on Facebook, Morrison said the Health, Finance, Treasury, and Home Affairs arrangements were in place ‘as a “break glass in case of emergency” safeguard’ during the Covid pandemic.
As far as his decision to swear himself in to oversee the Department of Industry, Energy, and Resources, Morrison declared it was undertaken ‘for separate reasons’. In fact, it was the only portfolio out of the five in which he involved himself directly by cancelling the PEP11 gas project off the New South Wales coast, overriding then resources minister Keith Pitt.
The cancellation of this project was vintage Morrison, playing politics to save the Liberal bed-wetters in once-safe North Shore Sydney seats under threat from the so-called ‘Teal independents’. As we saw on May 21, it did Morrison, the bed-wetters, and the Liberals no good, since the Teals made a clean sweep of all those seats, which is what happens when you play politics without conviction. Voters will choose the real thing all the time, not a poor imitation.
While it seems the matter of these appointments was legal, it is the manner in which they were done that has caused concern. The secret nature of these appointments is a well-worn page from the Morrison playbook. Witness the National Cabinet, where, once a court ruled that its deliberations could not be protected under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation, Morrison immediately moved to amend the FOI Act to make its deliberations secret.
What did he (and the state premiers and chief ministers) have to hide? Why so much pandemic secrecy?
Arguably, up until now, no federal government in the history of this country has shown as much disdain for the Australian people as Morrison’s regime.
As discussed previously in these pages, Associate Professor Janina Boughey of the UNSW Law School exposed the lack of accountability of executive governments, which has been particularly accentuated over the last couple of years, at the Samuel Griffith Society Conference.
Associate Professor Boughey noted in particular the Senate committee for the scrutiny of delegated legislation – which is the term for laws made by parliaments but then delegated by them to minsters, bureaucrats, and agencies – had calculated that about 20 per cent of the 249 pieces of such legislation made in response to Covid were exempt from disallowance by the Parliament and scrutiny by the committee. This, ostensibly, was done on the basis of the need to deal with an emergency in an expeditious manner. However, Boughey added that this approach cannot be justified on an historical basis. For the years 2010 to 2019, a grand total of only 19 pieces of delegated legislation were disallowed by the Commonwealth Parliament, which shows that the ever-increasing removal of such legislation from parliamentary scrutiny is not demonstrably justified.
So, Morrison’s secret appointments should really come as no surprise. They are consistent with his modus operandi. As Augusto Zimmermann and I wrote in our book, Deconstructing ScoMo, his first instincts are always authoritarian and he appeared to have developed a visceral distrust of the Australian people.
A final thought. Other than cancelling the PEP11 gas project, it seems – at the time of writing – that Morrison did no more with his secret powers. That, too, is no surprise, given his complete lack of any conviction to stick to a policy for longer that the proverbial five minutes.
For him, it is all about holding on to power and not much more. So, why should we be concerned? There is no evidence that the power was abused or any crimes were committed.
Well, imagine if Daniel Andrews or Mark McGowan were in a position to take on secret powers without the knowledge of their ministers. That is scary, to say the least.
Dr Rocco Loiacono is a Senior Lecturer at Curtin University Law School. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Curtin University.