Australian Prime Minister says Scott Morrison ‘undermined democracy’ with secret roles

SYDNEY, Aug 16 (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said his predecessor Scott Morrison had “undermined our democracy” by secretly appointing himself home and treasury minister during the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to health, finance and resource portfolios previously unveiled.

Morrison, who resigned as leader of the Liberal Party after losing the general election in May, has come under fire from senior members of his own party and his coalition partner, the National Party, who were not unaware of arrangements.

After a review of the matter by the Prime Minister’s Department, Albanese told reporters that Morrison took over the portfolios of health and finance in March 2020, home affairs and treasury in May 2021 and resources in April 2021.

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“It is quite extraordinary that these appointments have been kept secret by the Morrison government from the Australian people,” he said.

Albanese will receive legal advice on the Solicitor General issue on Monday and said he criticized the Morrison government for allowing a centralization of power through the prime minister.

Former home secretary in Morrison’s government, Karen Andrews, said she was unaware Morrison also held the post and called on Morrison to resign from parliament.

“You can’t govern in secret,” Andrews, a Liberal Party MP, told ABC radio after Albanese’s press conference.

Former treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who left politics after losing his seat in the May election, was also unaware that Morrison was in charge of the treasury, the Australian newspaper reported.

Liberal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said legal advice from the Solicitor General was needed before any decision on next steps could be made.

In a lengthy statement, Morrison, who remains a Liberal backbench MP, said he regretted his actions had raised concern but had “acted in good faith in a crisis”.

Morrison defended taking on additional ministerial roles without the knowledge of his cabinet during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it was “unprecedented times” and the powers served as a safeguard.

“I have only used these powers once. I have not sought to interfere with ministers in the conduct of their portfolios,” he said in the statement.

He added that “in retrospect, these arrangements were not necessary”.

Morrison said in a radio interview earlier on Tuesday that he had not made the arrangements public because they were just a back-up, and it was an ‘oversight’ the ministers did not were informed that their roles were duplicated.

“We had to take extraordinary measures to put safeguards in place,” he told radio station 2GB, comparing it to having two keys on a nuclear submarine.

The role of resources minister he took on in 2021 was different, he said, because he had used the power to stop approval for a gas exploration project off the Australian coast to which the local communities were opposed. The decision is being challenged in court.

“I believe I made the right decision in the national interest. This is the only case in which I have been directly involved in this department or any other department,” he said in the statement.

Albanese said it was concerning that two people had responsibility for the resources portfolio and had different positions on the issues.

Not presenting to parliament who was responsible for ministerial portfolios was “a very clear breach of the obligations the prime minister has to parliament,” he told ABC radio on Tuesday.

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Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Sam Holmes and Simon Cameron-Moore

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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