Scott Morrison having himself secretly appointed as health, finance and resources minister is more than weird and bizarre – it is a frightening revelation of how fragile our democratic arrangements are.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese got it right when he reacted with alarm.
The current Prime Minister said it was “extraordinary and unprecedented”.
“It is the sort of tin-pot activity that we would ridicule if it was in a non-democratic country.”
In a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy like ours, cabinet government answering to the peoples’ representatives in the Parliament is the bulwark against tyranny and the arbitrary restriction of citizens’ right and freedoms.
For it to work everyone needs to know who has responsibility for what, especially the ministers who believe they have been charged to administer their portfolio areas.
After all, they are the ones who have to give account of themselves in Parliament after the cabinet has collectively signed off on the government’s policies and direction.
The irony is that the revelation comes in a new book – with the captivating title Plagued – by two journalists at The Australian, apparently meant to show how heroic Scott Morrison was in handling the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the subterfuge went wider than then health minister Greg Hunt’s emergency powers.
Hunt at least was in on the trick and agreed with Morrison it would be better that he take over the extraordinary powers should Hunt be unable to carry on rather than the junior minister Richard Colbeck.
A clear vote of no confidence in Colbeck, with indications he didn’t know about the arrangement anyway.
But according to the book, Morrison saw the unprecedented twinning of the health ministry also in terms as a safeguard against abuse of the absolute authority the state of emergency act conferred on Greg Hunt.
That truly is weird: On the one hand constraining the minister while at the same time secretly making the prime minister even more unaccountably powerful.
Just as curious was Morrison also making himself the secret finance minister.
In this case the very senior and competent Mathias Cormann was kept in the dark. We are left to speculate what he would have thought about being cloned in this way.
The fact that the conventions of cabinet government could be trashed in this way is a pointer to how vulnerable our institutions are to over weening megalomania.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton who was a member of the National Security Committee of cabinet – the engine room of the federal pandemic response – says he knew nothing of Morrison’s “elegant solution”.
Senior Nationals in cabinet lined up on Monday to say they were similarly blindsided.
The Nationals were victims of another secret power play that had nothing to do with the pandemic and everything to do with Morrison being unwilling to confront them in cabinet over a gas exploration permit off the New South Wales coast.
Nationals’ resources minister Keith Pitt was in favour of granting a permit, which had voters from the Central Coast all the way down to Wollongong up in arms.
Morrison’s solution was again to furtively make himself the resources minister so he could kybosh the proposal.
Pitt was “shocked” when he was told and queried the prime minister’s authority to take matters out of his hands in this way.
His colleague in cabinet at the time and now the Nationals leader, David Littleproud, says it was “pretty ordinary “of Morrison and “disappointing”.
Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie says if she knew about it she would have challenged it robustly in cabinet because “transparency and accountability” are fundamental in our “fabulous liberal democracy”.
She says the conventions that keep this democracy working must be respected.
Indeed, but unfortunately there is precedent for how easily they can be subverted.
The biggest constitutional crisis of our democracy occurred in 1975 when the opposition in the Senate and the Governor-General threw convention to the wind and colluded in dismissing the duly-elected Whitlam Labor government.
This time the Governor-General David Hurley – unlike his predecessor the duplicitous Sir John Kerr – ‘‘followed normal process and acting on the advice of the government of the day appointed former prime minister Morrison to administer portfolios’’ other than his own.
A spokesperson for Hurley says these actions were “consistent with section 64 of the Constitution”.
That certainly was then attorney-general Christian Porter’s view and constitutional experts on Monday indicated this application may well be legal but it is certainly dangerously unconventional.
Albanese says “the Australian people deserve better than this contempt for democratic processes and for our Westminster system of government”.
They did in 1975 and they certainly did over the past two years.
But we should not let the fact Scott Morrison was swept from office lull us into a false sense of complacency – eternal vigilance is, as the saying goes, the price for our liberty.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics