The former prime minister quietly appointed himself to a number of positions during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it was necessary in case ministers fell ill.
Australia will introduce new rules to increase transparency in ministerial appointments after an investigation into secret ministerial positions by then Prime Minister Scott Morrison found that they undermined public confidence in the government.
Morrison, who lost power in a general election in May, was secretly given five ministerial positions during the election corona pandemic: health, finance, treasury, resources and home affairs.
Three ministers later said they were unaware they shared power with Morrison.
An investigation led by former Supreme Court Justice Virginia Bell found that the appointments likely damaged public confidence in the government. Echoing comments from the Solicitor General, Bell said in a report released Friday that the lack of parliamentary accountability undermined responsible government.
“When the nominations came out, the secrecy surrounding them eroded confidence in the government,” Bell said.
Morrison previously said the appointments were necessary during the pandemic to ensure continuity, and as a precautionary measure in case a minister becomes incapacitated. But the report cast doubt on both counts, arguing, for example, that acting ministers could have been appointed quickly if necessary.
In a statement shortly after the report was released, Morrison noted the criticism but defended his actions as lawful and said he would remain in parliament, where he sits as a backbencher after losing May’s election.
“As Prime Minister, my awareness of national security and national interest issues was broader than what is known to individual ministers and certainly to the investigation,” he said in a Facebook post.
“This limits the ability of third parties to draw definitive conclusions on such matters.”
Bell recommended six amendments, including legislation requiring public notice of ministerial appointments.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who said in August that Morrison’s actions “democracy underminedsaid his government would adopt all six recommendations.
“We are shining sunlight on a shadow government that preferred to operate in the dark. A government operating in a cult of secrecy and a culture of cover-up,” Albanese told a press conference following the report’s release.
Bell noted that because Morrison’s additional powers had only been exercised once, the implications of the appointments were limited.
While it called it “disturbing” that then-senior official Phil Gaetjens, who prepared the briefing on the appointments, did not push for more disclosure, the inquiry said responsibility for the decisions lay with the then prime minister.
Morrison communicated with the investigation through an attorney.