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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Paul Karp

Scott Morrison becomes first former Australian prime minister to be censured by parliament

Scott Morrison has been censured by the House of Representatives after offering fresh defences for his failure to disclose extra ministerial appointments and accusing the government of pursuing the “politics of retribution”.

Australia’s 30th prime minister, who led the Coalition to an election loss in May, told the lower house it was “false” to equate his decision to administer colleagues’ departments with appointments as minister, and claimed if he had been asked he “would have responded truthfully about the arrangements”.

Morrison becomes the first former prime minister to be censured, in a rare censure of a backbench MP – the first since the former small business minister Bruce Billson in 2018.

The leader of the house, Tony Burke, moved shortly after 9am on Wednesday to censure Morrison for failing to disclose the five appointments “to the House of Representatives, the Australian people and the cabinet, which undermined responsible government and eroded public trust in Australia’s democracy”.

Burke cited those conclusions from the inquiry report by the former high court justice Virginia Bell, released on Friday.

The motion passed shortly after noon 86 votes to 50, with the Liberal MP Bridget Archer and the crossbench except Bob Katter and Dai Le joining Labor and the Greens to pass it. Katter voted with the Coalition, Le abstained and several Coalition MPs were absent.

The shadow home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, who called on Morrison to resign in August, abstained.

Burke said Morrison’s failure to alert the parliament that he was responsible for five extra portfolios was “no small matter”, arguing that the path of the previous parliament “was different because we were deceived”.

Burke said Morrison “did not just fall below the standards” of the house, “he undermined them, attacked them, [and] abused them”.

Burke said Morrison’s public accounts were “logically impossible”, citing the contradiction between his claims through lawyers to Bell that he presumed the appointments would be published in the government gazette and his earlier claim he did not want his ministerial colleagues to know to avoid fear he was trying to second-guess them.

Burke made a last-ditch appeal to the Coalition members to support the motion, after the party decided to close ranks around Morrison – with the exception of Archer who spoke in favour.

On Wednesday Archer told the house that Morrison’s actions were “an affront to our Westminster system” because the “Australian people had a right to be informed” of the appointments.

“I do not accept any of the explanations put forward by the former prime minister for his actions,” she said. “And I’m deeply disappointed by the lack of genuine apology or, more importantly, understanding of the impact of these decisions.”

Archer said the censure was “not a game” as some things “are above the cut and thrust of politics” – but she urged colleagues to support it as an “opportunity for a line to be drawn” and move on from Morrison’s leadership and the May 2022 election defeat.

Earlier, Morrison said he had led Australia’s government as it “faced the abyss of uncertainty” in the Covid-19 global pandemic.

“I have no intention now of submitting to the political intimidation of this government, using its numbers in this place to impose its retribution on a political opponent,” he said.

Morrison said his appointments to administer the health and finance portfolios were “a redundancy” to ministerial powers that could be exercised without cabinet approval.

“I do not resile from these decisions and believe them entirely necessary, mirroring many procedures being implemented in the private sector at the time.”

On two further portfolios – treasury and home affairs – Morrison accepted that his decisions to create a “dormant redundancy” to exercise those powers “were unnecessary and that insufficient consideration was given to these decisions at the time, including non-disclosure”.

“In relation to a decision to take authority to administer the department of industry, science resources and technology, for the purposes of being able to consider PEP-11, I do not resile from that action.

“The authority was lawfully sought and exercised on a specific matter solely.

“I considered it unnecessary to dismiss the minister to deal with this matter, as he was doing a fine job, and unlawful to inappropriately pressure him in relation to this decision.”

Morrison said claims he was not accountable to parliament were “not credible” because as prime minister he could answer on all portfolios in question time.

“The suggestion that as prime minister I was not available to do so in this house, or that the opposition fails to ask such questions in those portfolios is absurd and completely false.”

Morrison also said: “Had I been asked about these matters at the time at the numerous press conferences I held, I would have responded truthfully about the arrangements I had put in place.”

Morrison said he would “take the instruction of my faith and turn the other cheek”, and called on the Labor members to consider gathering more experience in government before they “may wish to cast the first stone in this place”.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said Morrison had shown “arrogance” instead of “contrition” in the censure debate.

“The former prime minister owes an apology – not to the people he shared brekkie with at the Lodge, he owes an apology to the Australian people for the undermining of democracy.”

Albanese said Australia’s pandemic response “was not a one-man show”.

He said the censure was a “profoundly sad moment in the life of our parliament” but to ignore Morrison’s actions “would be complicit in saying ‘well that was OK’”.

The censure motion united the crossbench, with the Greens leader, Adam Bandt, and independent MPs Helen Haines, Monique Ryan, Kate Chaney, Sophie Scamps, Allegra Spender, Zoe Daniel, Zali Steggall and Kylea Tink all speaking in favour.

Earlier, the manager of opposition business, Paul Fletcher, labelled the censure motion “political payback” and argued that censure motions against backbenchers were not appropriate unless done by bipartisan agreement.

The former deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, defended Morrison, declaring his legacy should “be the fact that he led this nation as best he could”.

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