Scott Morrison, in the book that first revealed his penchant for portfolio hoarding, likens himself to the depression-era treasurer Joseph Lyons.
According to the former prime minister, Lyon’s legacy was a guiding light for him during the pandemic, teaching him to unshackle himself from the political conformism of the day.
Morrison saw himself as “a leader unchained from orthodoxy, ideologically uninhibited and politically licensed to employ dramatic intervention as leader of a conservative party”, journalists Simon Benson – a friend of Morrison’s – and Geoff Chambers write in Plagued. (An extract of the book was published in the Australian on the weekend where it was revealed Morrison had taken on the health and finance portfolios early in the pandemic.)
The news on Tuesday that Morrison actually had five additional ministerial portfolios demonstrates not only that Morrison was unchained from orthodoxy – he was seemingly unhinged from reality.
The decision in the early, heady days of the pandemic to take on the health portfolio can at least be understood. The cabinet was advised, and reasons were put forward for the move by the then attorney general Christian Porter as the government grappled with the awesome powers of the Biosecurity Act.
As for the rest, it is hard not to pity Stephen Donaghue, the solicitor general, who has been tasked with getting to the bottom of one of the most bewildering political scandals in recent memory.
For now, we know scant facts. We know that after health, Morrison gave himself responsibility for the finance portfolio in what appears to be a quick copy and paste job of the paperwork to governor general David Hurley (given Porter and the then finance minister Mathias Cormann were unaware that Morrison had decided to extend his reach).
Twelve months later, in an even more bamboozling move, Morrison decided he’d like to get his paws on treasury and home affairs too – without, apparently, telling any other cabinet minister, let alone those whose portfolios he had decided to muscle in on.
The only portfolio other than health he advised some colleagues he had happily snatched was that of resources, which he took on in April 2021. Why? Because Morrison had an election to win and was unhappy the resources minister Keith Pitt wasn’t giving him the political outcome he needed.
He advised Pitt in mid-2021 he was shadowing him and had the power to make ministerial decisions. The “you do what I want or I’ll make myself the minister and do it for you” is certainly far from the chains of orthodoxy that have constrained ministers in the Westminster system until now.
Morrison insists this was the only time he used the extraordinary ministerial powers he had gifted himself, and says that had he needed to use other “break glass in case of emergency” safeguards he would have disclosed the authority.
Except he didn’t. In the one instance that Morrison did use his powers as resources minister to block the Pep-11 decision, he at no stage made public the ministerial arrangement, nor advised cabinet colleagues of the process.
Morrison has been open about his disdain for government and for international institutions and during his time in office showed contempt for the media and basic principles of transparency and accountability.
The former NSW senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells accused him of destroying the institution of the Liberal party, among other things, saying “it is his way or the highway – an autocrat, a bully who has no moral compass”.
The latest revelations show Morrison also had contempt for his colleagues and for the longstanding conventions that underpin Australia’s democracy.
As the former home affairs minister Karen Andrews said, Australians were right to feel “betrayed” by the leader of the country. She is the only Coalition figure to suggest Morrison should now resign, with the rest still mostly sticking by their one-time messiah.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, as Morrison was collecting ministries like some kind of fetish, the only person who apparently knew was the governor general, who quietly signed off on the administrative instrument and then happily acquiesced to Morrison’s request to not make the arrangement public. Not even department secretaries were aware. It’s stunningly weird.
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While the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has been reluctant to criticise the governor general, it seems extraordinary that Hurley did not seek further legal advice on what was a clear deviation from the norms of responsible government.
There are many questions still to be answered about this wretched business, and there must be consequences for Morrison, who has said he didn’t mean for his power grab to upset anyone.
Albanese has made clear this was not “business as usual” and is unlikely to be repeated – but the loophole that allowed for secret ministries to be held must be fixed.