Scott Morrison’s ministerial grab holds lessons beyond Australia

“That’s not my job” was uttered so often by Scott Morrison in his final months as Australia’s prime minister that the phrase became a running joke. As it turns out, he had far more jobs than voters, parliament, or indeed some of his own cabinet realised. While in power, Morrison quietly appointed himself to five other ministries during the pandemic — in some cases without the knowledge of relevant ministers — ostensibly to ensure continuity of government should ministers become ill or even die of Covid-19. The revelations this week have ignited a firestorm, raising questions of accountability, transparency and the concentration of power. They are questions not just for Morrison but also for Australia and other democracies around the world.

The pandemic provided the perfect fig leaf for strongmen in more authoritarian systems to amass power. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán wasted no time during the pandemic to gain the right to rule by decree, with no time limit. China’s Xi Jinping has relentlessly tightened his grip after overseeing some of the strictest and widespread controls on movement the world has ever seen.

Even established democracies have not been immune to power grabs over the past two years, most flagrantly that of Donald Trump. The Morrison affair may seem tame in comparison, but it is a reminder of the need for vigilance in shoring up the processes and institutions of democracies.

It is right that extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. Faced with what was their biggest crisis outside wartime, many countries adopted emergency measures during the pandemic that greatly expanded state powers. But it is imperative that democratic checks and balances agree and define those powers before they are exercised. The fact that some of Morrison’s own ministers were unaware that he held parallel powers to them beggars belief.

Anthony Albanese, Morrison’s successor, has indicated he is open to a royal commission to investigate the matter. An inquiry is merited. Albanese has accused Morrison of undermining democracy, convention and Australia’s “Westminster” parliamentary system, modelled on that of the UK and its cabinet system of government. (Outgoing UK leader Boris Johnson, too, has played fast and loose with convention.)

It is unclear if Morrison broke any laws in taking on the health, home affairs, resources, finance and Treasury briefs in 2020-21. David Hurley, the governor general — who acts as Queen Elizabeth’s representative in Australia — signed off on the shadow appointments; a spokesman said they were consistent with section 64 of the constitution. But if it is right that a head of government can secretly amass portfolios legally and constitutionally, that presents a thornier question for Australia.

Arguments that Morrison mostly did not exercise his acquired powers are not particularly helpful. What happens if a future prime minister, even more heavy-handed and accountability-averse than Morrison, follows his example? And Morrison did once use his extra powers to over-rule his resources minister, blocking a controversial gas exploration project — a matter completely unrelated to the pandemic.

Australia’s constitution is hard to amend. But simple steps could help prevent another secret sweep of portfolios, including a public register of ministerial appointments that would have to be updated by the government. Lessons also need to be learnt. Convention matters, even for countries with written constitutions; complacency over flouting convention is insidious — a message that should reverberate in democracies half a world away from Canberra, including in the original Westminster.

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