(Bloomberg) -- Former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday defended his move to secretly take power in five ministries including the Treasury portfolio during the last term of parliament, which has sparked an investigation from his successor.
In a lengthy Facebook post, Morrison said he took the decision during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 because of the risk that ministers could get sick and become incapacitated. He said he picked departments with specific powers that weren’t subject to oversight by the cabinet over the course of two years, which included the Health Department and Home Affairs.
“As prime minister I considered it necessary to put in place safeguards, redundancies and contingencies to ensure the continuity and effective operation of government during this crisis period, which extended for the full period of my term,” he wrote. Morrison didn’t explain why he didn’t disclose the arrangements at the time.
Morrison added that he separately sought and was granted oversight to administer the Department of Industry, Energy and Resources to assess the license of a gas-drilling project. He said he announced that decision publicly, adding that it was the only time he used the powers granted to him under the law by the governor general, who in practice works at the direction of the prime minister.
“Ministerial briefs were not copied to me as prime minister in a co-minister capacity, as this was not the nature of the arrangement,” Morrison said. “These arrangements were there as a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ safeguard.”
Morrison’s actions have sparked an uproar in Australia, where Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s center-left Labor Party took power for the first time in nearly a decade following a resounding election win in May. He accused Morrison of “deliberately” undermining Australian democracy by deciding to step into these ministries without informing anyone.
“It is completely extraordinary that these appointments were kept secret by the Morrison government from the Australian people,” Albanese said at a press conference in Canberra on Tuesday.
It’s not immediately clear what laws, if any, Morrison may have broken. Albanese said he would take legal advice from the solicitor-general on the potential consequences of his Morrison’s secret appointments on Monday.
Some ministers were unaware that Morrison had been sworn into their portfolios at the time, including former Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. Morrison said he had assumed Cormann had been told and has since apologized. Former Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told The Australian on Tuesday that he didn’t know Morrison had sworn himself into his ministry.
Except for the Industry and Resources Ministry, which was led by a coalition partner, all the portfolios involved were held by the former prime minister’s party. Although Morrison said he only exercised the powers he granted himself once, his statements have also been inconsistent.
Prior to his Facebook post, Morrison only disclosed his actions as Industry and Resources minister when questioned during an interview with an Australian radio station. In his statement later, Morrison said he “had not recollected these arrangements having been put in place” and said they were “unnecessary” in hindsight.
Morrison’s government was frequently criticized for its actions during the pandemic, including allegations that his administration moved too slowly to secure vaccine supplies.
“The use of the powers by a prime minister to exercise authority to administer departments has clearly caused concern,” Morrison said in his Facebook post. “I regret this, but acted in good faith in a crisis.”
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