Australia's former Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended his actions after it was revealed he was secretly sworn in to control five key ministries early on in the pandemic. He said he acted lawfully at all times.
Current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the secret appointments were "fundamentally a trashing of our democratic system." Albanese added that he is seeking the opinion of the solicitor-general on whether Morrison's moves were legal.
"You're standing on the shore after the fact, I was steering the ship in the middle of the tempest," Morrison told reporters on Wednesday at his first major press conference since his conservative Liberal Party was booted from government at the May election.
"As prime minister, only I could really understand the weight of responsibility that was on my shoulders and on no one else," he added.
What did Scott Morrison do?
In early 2020, then-Prime Minister Morrison was secretly sworn in as the health minister and finance minister. The move was supposedly to safeguard against the existing ministers being incapacitated by COVID-19 as Australia implemented wide-reaching lockdown measures.
The following year, Morrison was also secretly sworn in as treasurer, home affairs minister and head of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources.
Several of the ministers serving at the time — including Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann — said they didn't know Morrison had joint control over their portfolios.
The first two appointments were only revealed on Monday in an extract from an upcoming book on Morrison's term in power. The other three appointments were uncovered in the subsequent media furor.
"The fact that ministers were unaware of these things is actually proof of my lack of interference or intervention in any of their activities," Morrison told reporters on Wednesday.
Morrison said he only used the powers once: to override his resources minister and block a controversial offshore gas project. He said he was "very happy" with that decision, despite conceding it had little to do with the pandemic.
How has Australia responded?
Several of the former government ministers who were kept in the dark about Morrison's secret appointments have criticized their former party leader.
Karen Andrews, who was the minister for home affairs at the time Morrison secretly shared the portfolio, called on him to resign from Parliament.
Senior members of the current Labor government have called the move "dictatorial" and even accused Morrison of attempting to form a "shadow government."
"The secrecy itself is what really gets to the heart of why this is a problem," said George Williams, a constitutional law expert at the University of New South Wales.
zc/sms (Reuters, AFP)