Morrison’s Ministerial Deceits Exemplify a Democracy in Crisis

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Scott Morrison & David Hurley

The revelations that Scott Morrison was moonlighting as a shadow minister holding five extra portfolios other than his own, have not only laid bare the extent to which authoritarian tendencies have crept into government, but they also indicate that recent crises have extended into politics.

The manner in which the former prime minister delivered his incoherent explanation as to why he deceived the nation at a 17 August press conference was further evidence that the multiple crises of extreme weather, pandemic and the economy clearly now include a breakdown in governance.

An arrogant Morrison stood before the press, a man caught out in a conspiracy at the highest level, and confidently delivered a speech that absolved himself of any wrongdoing, while he pointed the finger at the nation, accusing it of having demanded that he take such unprecedented action.

Morrison had the governor general swear him in as a secret second minister to five other ministries: health and finance in May 2020, resources in April last year, and home affairs and the treasury the following month. He only informed one minister, and he once overrode the authority of another.

But what’s plain to see is that in secretly consolidating an extraordinary amount of power with the collusion of key ministers and officials, Morrison has shown that our political system is broken, at least to an extent, as such loopholes only reveal themselves in periods of decline.

Morrison deceit

“Not for any personal advancement”

“The situation was highly uncertain,” Morrison told the press on Wednesday, as he flagged his pandemic excuse to explain why he acted in a previously inconceivable way. And he claimed that the public, the media and the opposition were all holding him solely responsible for the COVID crisis.

“I, as prime minister, was responsible pretty much for every single thing that was going on, every drop of rain, every strain of the virus, everything that occurred over that period of time,” the Liberal MP continued with clear hints of megalomania.

Morrison’s hour-long press conference was a prolonged reminder of how he and his ministers had been governing the country by the end of the Coalition’s near decade in power, which, by that point, involved ministers only being accountable to themselves.

As a second secret minister, Morrison shadowed the other ministers’ decisions with the ability to override them, which is exactly what he did when he overturned then resource minister Keith Pitt’s determination to permit Asset Energy’s PEP-11 gas exploration project to continue in May last year.

Yet, with the hauteur of someone still in office, the ex-PM told reporters that he did not act as a co-minister despite being sworn into the roles, he repeatedly asserted that he didn’t exercise the extra powers when he did, and he implied that these sorts of arrangements are not so uncommon.

A legal undermining

Another sign that our Australian democracy has been seriously compromised is that Scott Morrison had then attorney general Christian Porter set out how he could legally get around the constitutional and statutory protocols and swear himself in as the second health minister in March 2020.

This means that the nation’s chief lawmaker used his legal expertise to, as current PM Anthony Albanese has described it, undermine our parliamentary democracy, so that Morrison could partake in this “usurping of power”.

“It wasn’t just Morrison, one isolated individual, who was part of this attack on democracy,” explained Senator David Shoebridge, “this whole scheme was kicked off by the first law officer, the Coalition’s attorney general Porter, and it was backed by a series of Coalition ministers.”

“That shows the extent to which our rights are under attack, and that we need to entrench these norms in black and white law and/or constitutions protections,” the Australian Greens justice spokesperson told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

The senator further explained that our democratic system is based upon “a set of cultural understandings and norms” that aren’t stipulated in the statutes, which indicates that the system has been operating smoothly under these conditions, until the recent rot that set in with Morrison.

The Queen’s representative

Not only did the last prime minister involve some of his colleagues in cabinet in his grab for power, but the Australian governor general David Hurley, had to be involved as he, as the Queen’s representative, is charged with swearing ministers into office.

The documents reflecting Hurley having sworn in the ex-PM to the shadow ministries were released on Wednesday. Morrison has said the governor general acted with “absolute propriety” in doing so, while legal experts state that if the GG hadn’t complied, a constitutional crisis would have ensued.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the governor general said he had “no reason to believe the appointments would not be communicated” to the public. And he was just following the directions of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, as he was required to.

However, surely after the public was not made aware of Morrison having been sworn into the health and finance roles in March 2020, it was more than apparent that there would be no official announcement that the then PM was being sworn in to three other ministerial roles mid-last year.

A political crossroad

Despite the former PM’s composure whilst delivering his explanation on why he found it necessary to provide himself with a range of powers and responsibilities on the sly, the version of events that he set out was full of holes.

And while accusing the Australian constituency of somehow unwittingly begging him to create this shadow cabinet was a bold rhetorical move, it was utterly ridiculous.

As he spoke on the podium, Morrison noted the multiple crises that were a key characteristic of his time in office – the pandemic, the drought and the global recession – as he went on to elaborate upon the crisis in politics that his appointment to the top ministerial role led to.

With the coming of prime minister Albanese, it might be thought that this political crisis is over, however the system that led to it remains intact, as does the Queen’s representative who facilitated the deception.

Another key indicator that Australian politics is at a critical point was seen with the mass turning away from the two major parties at the ballot box in May. This shift reveals that the two-party system, which has stood in its current form going back at least to the 1940s, is no longer tenable.

The so-called greenslide that saw a sizable number of Greens and teal independents voted into parliament at the last election has provided the nation with the hope that there is another way forward after the belligerence of the Morrison years.

But it’s yet to be seen if the nation takes the progressive path forward or it continues its creep towards authoritarian governance.

Main Image: Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) and Governor General David Hurley (Right)

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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