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Morrison’s secret portfolio appointments ‘unnecessary’: Bell report

Former High Court judge Virginia Bell concluded it was “unnecessary” for Morrison to appoint himself as the secret minister for finance and health.

Morrison defended his actions in a statement on Facebook, saying there were made to “best advance and protect Australia’s national interests and the welfare of the Australian people”. He also noted the inquiry found he had not acted illegally.

Scott Morrison apologised 'for any offence' when he appointed himself into five ministerial portfolios in secret.
Scott Morrison apologised “for any offence” when he appointed himself into five ministerial portfolios in secret. (Nick Moir)

However, he did not specifically address the descriptions of his behaviour by Bell, which was labelled by the former High Court justice as “troubling”, “unnecessary” and “corrosive of trust in government”.

Instead, Morrison responded more generally, saying his “decisions were taken during an extremely challenging period, where there was a need for considerable urgency”.

But Bell rejected that argument.

“If Mr Hunt or Mr Cormann had become incapacitated and it was desired to have a senior minister exercise the Health Minister’s expansive human biosecurity emergency powers or the Finance Minister’s significant financial authorities, Mr Morrison could have been authorised to act as Minister for Health or Minister for Finance in a matter of minutes,” she wrote.

Bell concluded the secrecy around the ministerial appointments was “apt to undermine public confidence in the government”.

“Once the appointments became known, the secrecy with which they had been surrounded was corrosive of trust in government,” she wrote.

Bell recommended that the authorisation of an acting minister should be published as soon as practicable in the Commonwealth Gazette.

Scott Morrison secretly swore himself into various ministries.
Scott Morrison secretly swore himself into various ministries. (Nick Moir)

Morrison told Bell through a legal representative that he assumed being sworn into five ministerial portfolios would be published in the Commonwealth Gazette.

This is despite him also saying he did not tell the ministers because he didn’t want them to second-guess themselves.

“It is difficult to reconcile Mr Morrison’s choice not to inform his ministers of the appointments out of his wish not to be thought to be second-guessing them,” he said.

“Any idea that the gazettal of the Prime Minister’s appointment to administer the Treasury would not be picked up and quickly circulated within the public service and the Parliament strikes me as improbable in the extreme.

“The omission to state that he had acted at all times on the assumption that each appointment had been notified to the public in the Gazette is striking.”

In response to those criticisms of his secrecy, Morrison said he “addressed these issues privately with my colleagues at the time these issues were reported several months ago”.

The Bell report also revealed for the first time that Morrison also sought to appoint himself as the Minister for Agriculture, Water and the Environment.

Morrison ultimately decided not to take on that portfolio.

Bell concluded that criticism of Governor-General David Hurley for not warning Morrison against the secret appointments was “unwarranted”.

Speaking to the media in Canberra following the release of the Bell report, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has slammed the former government’s “cult of secrecy”.

Anthony Albanese has slammed the 'culture of secrecy' in the Morrison government.
Anthony Albanese has slammed the “cult of secrecy” in the Morrison government. (Alex Ellinghausen)

“Mr Morrison did not agree to meet with Virginia Bell, and communicated only through his lawyers,” he said.

“That contradicts the very clear statement Mr Morrison said when this inquiry was announced.”

Albanese said he would recommend to cabinet all of Bell’s recommendations be adopted.

“The Australian public is entitled to know this sort of information,” Albanese said.

“We’re operating as a mature, orderly government, and it contrasts with the chaos of the former government.”

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Albanese said any decision to censure Morrison would be decided by cabinet.

“I lead a government that’s collaborative,” he said.

“It’s very clear that this is a scathing report which is an indictment on the Morrison government.

“What was the culture that allowed this to thrive?”

He slammed other members of the Morrison ministry who knew about the secret portfolios but did not reveal them to the public.

Albanese didn’t answer directly if he thought Morrison should resign from parliament, where he remains the member for the electorate of Cook.

Scott Morrison remains a member of parliament.
Scott Morrison remains a member of parliament. (Alex Ellinghausen)

“I think that a whole lot of people have got to look at their behaviour in this,” he said.

“Quite clearly he’s misled the parliament every single day he stood there.

“He has misled the Australian people.”

Albanese also questioned the behaviour of the then-head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens.

“Phil Gaetjens comes out of the report with questions to be asked,” Albanese said.

“Why wasn’t an appropriate handbrake put forward, particularly by the head of Prime Minister and Cabinet?”

Asked if he wanted the yet-to-be-created national anti-corruption commission to investigate Morrison, Albanese said the commission would be independent.

He referenced former treasurer Josh Frydenberg seeking an apology after Morrison swore himself into the portfolio without his knowledge.

Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg in Parliament.
Josh Frydenberg did not know Scott Morrison had secretly appointed himself as Treasurer. (Getty)

“That’s of no interest to me. Where’s the apology to the Australian people?” Albanese said.

“That’s who we’re accountable to.”

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