Former prime minister Scott Morrison’s decision to secretly swear himself in to five extra ministries was “corrosive of trust in government” according to a report handed down by former High Court judge Virginia Bell.
The review by Bell was ordered by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese after it was revealed in August that Morrison had himself secretly sworn in to administer the departments of treasury, home affairs, health, finance, and industry, science, energy and resources during the last parliament.
The inquiry reveals that Morrison attempted to be appointed to the Environment Ministry, but he ultimately appeared to accept advice from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet that the move was too difficult given the personal responsibilities that come with the role.
The Environment Minister has wide-ranging powers to approve major project developments and can override Departmental advice relating to endangered species.
Bell found the secret appointments were “apt to undermine public confidence in government” and made six recommendations to restore public trust in democracy and improve transparency and accountability.
They included legislation to require public notice of the appointment of Ministers to administer departments and hold offices, the publication of acting arrangements for Ministers and the publication of details of which Ministers are appointed to administer departments and an outline of divisions of responsibilities where more than one Minister is appointed to the same department.
Albanese said Bell’s inquiry confirmed Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue’s advice in August that the principles of responsible government were “fundamentally undermined” because Morrison was not “responsible” to the Parliament, and through the parliament to the electors, for the departments he was appointed to administer.
Donaghue found Morrison had not acted illegally but that he had “fundamentally undermined” the principles of responsible government by keeping secret his appointment to five departments
Albanese said Morrison’s actions were “unprecedented and inexcusable” and that the decisions of former Prime Minister were emblematic of the culture of secrecy in which the previous Government operated.
The majority of Morrison’s cabinet were unaware of the unusual arrangements, including former finance minister Matthias Cormann and former treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who has condemned the “extreme overreach” in the forthcoming book Bulldozed by journalist and columnist for this masthead Niki Savva.
The inquiry’s six recommendations to improve transparency and accountability include:
- Passing new laws to make all ministerial appointments public
- Publishing a record of the responsibilities of all ministers in an acting role for two weeks or more
- Listing all acting ministerial arrangements on department websites on a regular basis
- Publishing every minister’s full responsibilities on the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s website
- Publishing a separate explanatory guide to ministerial responsibilities
- Publishing all responsible ministers in every department’s annual report
More to come
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