In Scott Morrison’s mind, he did nothing wrong by awarding himself the powers of the health, finance, treasury, home affairs and resources portfolios like some sort of ghostly understudy. He did what he had to do, and he saved Australia. That was the gist of his hour-long Wednesday press conference. But as always there are inconsistencies, half answers and questions which remain, despite the bluster. Here are the most glaring.
1. He can’t recall – or can he?
On Tuesday morning Morrison told Sydney radio 2GB he couldn’t recall appointing himself to any other ministries, beyond the health, finance and resources roles which had been reported.
Ben Fordham: Are there any other portfolios you assumed any control over?
Scott Morrison: “Not to my recollection, I am pursuing that, but not to my recollection.”
It was revealed that same day Morrison had also sworn himself into the home affairs and treasury portfolios.
On Wednesday, not only did Morrison have a full recollection of what happened, he went into great detail – on how it was done, why he did it, and why he believed it necessary.
“I only did it particularly in portfolios of significant areas of importance, ie treasury and home affairs, because there were unilateral decision making powers of ministers. After we had gone through the initial phase and the pandemic was continuing, we took the precaution to put those in place in these other important portfolios where there were unilateral decision-making powers on ministers that were not subject to cabinet.”
(He said “we” but he meant “me”.)
2. ‘I didn’t tell anyone so they wouldn’t be distracted’ – apart from those people I told
Morrison said he didn’t tell the ministers he was haunting their portfolios because he didn’t want them to be distracted from their day-to-day duties.
“I didn’t disclose it to them because I didn’t think it was for the best operation of the government during a crisis for which I am responsible.
“I did not want any of my ministers to be going about their daily business any different to what they were doing before. I was concerned that these issues could have been misconstrued and misunderstood and undermine the confidence of ministers in the performance of their duties at that time.”
But in one of his first answers, Morrison said he had told his health minister, Greg Hunt, and thought his finance minister, Mathias Cormann, had also been told and it was a mistake that he wasn’t.
“We were dealing with extra powers, new powers enlivened under the Biosecurity Act and talking with Greg [Hunt] and how we would mapping that new set of powers, then we had that discussion. My honest recollection was that there’d been a communication between officers in relation to the minister for finance, that didn’t take place. I accept that, and I have apologised to then minister Cormann…”
3. Good government relied on no one knowing he had these powers in reserve, but it was OK to tell two journalists writing a book about it
Morrison repeatedly said no one, other than some inside his department, Greg Hunt (and he thought Mathias Cormann) and the governor general, knew about the arrangement of him being sworn in to additional portfolios.
“There was a great risk that in the midst of that crisis those powers could be misinterpreted and misunderstood, which would have caused unnecessary angst in the middle of a pandemic and could have impacted on the day-to-day functioning of the government.”
But at the end of his press conference, he freely admitted having told the two journalists writing the book “Plaged”, Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers, at the time.
“I have no interest in the book, I have no commercial interest in it whatsoever, but I cooperated with interviews that were done contemporaneously. That book was written based on interviews that were conducted at the time, in the middle of the tempest.”
4. Trust everyone and also no one
Morrison said he trusted his ministers to exercise their powers. But he only took on portfolios in which ministers had unilateral power to make decisions without cabinet. He trusted his ministers to make decisions in the national interest, except where he didn’t.
“I am pleased that through the course of the pandemic my confidence was in them to keep just doing their job. Now, the fact I didn’t interfere in doing their job shows the confidence I had in them.”
But what about Pep-11 and the blocking of a gas exploration license off the coast of New South Wales ?
“I wanted him [Keith Pitt] to continue doing the job as the minister but on that particular project I believe it was in the national interests for me to consider it in its totality which I did and I’m very happy with that decision and if people think I should have made a different decision and allowed that project to proceed and allow the drilling to occur off the New South Wales coast, I don’t agree with it.”
5. It was all about the pandemic – except where it wasn’t
Morrison said (with the exception of Pitt’s portfolio) the “safeguards” he took were all about the “unprecedented” circumstances the pandemic had created.
Which might explain the first three ministries he was secretly sworn into in 2020. But it doesn’t explain why he decided to add home affairs and treasury to his list of powers in 2021, given the nation had a much bigger handle on what to expect from the pandemic.
In explaining how it slipped his mind to tell the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, about adding treasury to his list of portfolios, especially given the pair were playing pool, eating curries and watching Yes Minister together at The Lodge in July 2021, Morrison says there were bigger things going on than the pandemic.
“Now at that time we were also putting the budget together for that year, and in addition to that I was in the process of negotiating the Aukus arrangement with the United States and the United Kingdom.
So, there were other issues that, frankly, had a much higher priority and these issues were added to the emergency powers on an administrative basis.”
6. Co-administering or not co-administering
Morrison made it clear that he thought anyone who was exercised over what he had done just didn’t understand. He wasn’t “co-administering” those portfolios. Except that is exactly what the instruments released by the prime minister’s department said he was doing.
“I was not co-administering … the suggestions of co-administration of departments is 100% false. I was administratively sworn in which gave me authority, like many other ministers had, to exercise decisions in an emergency situation.”
7. A safeguard for everyone … except the prime minister
The reason Morrison needed these powers was as a “safeguard” (there is that word again) in the case of an emergency and that minister was incapacitated. But if Morrison was incapacitated, he would have used the normal processes to delegate his authority to the deputy prime minister. Because Morrison needed emergency powers “just in case”, but that same urgency apparently didn’t apply to an incapacitated prime minister.
“The deputy prime minister was the backup to me. I mean, I assign when I’m prime minister to the deputy prime minister before I went on leave or something like that … and he acts as prime minister.”
So why do it in advance for the other ministers?
“It might be puzzling but that may be as a result of not having walked in my shoes and understood the urgency and the nature of the circumstances at the time. You’re standing on the shore after the fact. I was steering the ship in the middle of the tempest.”
8. Power for power’s sake
People expected him to have powers, so he granted himself more powers he didn’t use.
“I believed it was a prudent, responsible action in the middle of a crisis to have those emergency powers in place to ensure that I could exercise the expectations of my responsibilities, which I reminded you was put to me on a daily basis by members of the media, by the opposition, constantly telling me that I was responsible for everything … So this is something I dealt with every day.
“The expectation was created of that responsibility, and I made sure that I was in a position to act should I have to and thank goodness that was not necessary, and I think this is a point that is being overlooked.”
9. Maybe the governor-general asked Morrison to make the powers public, maybe he didn’t – whatever you think, you would be wrong
Morrison would not give a straight answer as to whether the governor-general had asked him to make his extra portfolios public.
“You’re asking me to go into conversations between me and the Governor-General which I am not going to do.
Reporter: So we assume you did.
Morrison: “No, you can’t assume anything… I am not going to be verballed, or bullied in this press conference by you trying to put words in my mouth.
“You can assert nothing about that. You can challenge nothing about it because if you did so then you would err.”
10. Process is suddenly important, when it comes to disclosure
Morrison would not disclose if he was paid to attend the conservative former leaders conference in Japan – which he missed parliament for – when asked, because that is not the process. This, in an hour long press conference defending why he threw away process and secretly appointed himself minister for additional ministries.
“I’ll make all the necessary disclosures under my register of interests as you’d expect me to do the previous members of parliament have done.”
Q: Why don’t you do so now?
“Because that’s not how the process for how it’s done in parliament. I answer to the parliament and I’ll complete the register of interests as you’d expect me to.”