The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, says Scott Morrison was appointed to five additional ministries, including Treasury and home affairs, labelling his predecessor’s actions an “unprecedented trashing of our democracy”.
The previous home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, has called for Morrison to resign from parliament following the revelations, but the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, is standing by his former leader.
Ken Wyatt, another former cabinet colleague, has criticised Morrison for not respecting cabinet as a “key instrument in the Westminster system”, but called for him to stay in parliament so he can be held accountable.
“It is disappointing for our democracy,” Wyatt said. “I was just blown away, I had absolutely no knowledge of it.”
When asked if he agreed with the calls for Morrison to resign, Wyatt said he needed to stay in parliament to be held accountable.
“When somebody leaves parliament, you are fundamentally out of the system and you are not accountable,” he said. “I think for him to remain there and justify what has happened is important and I am interested to hear what the former prime minister has to say.”
Former Liberal prime minister John Howard said on Tuesday night that Morrison should not resign because it would trigger an “unnecessary” byelection in a safe Liberal seat.
Howard told ABC TV he believed “most people” wanted to “get on with the present and the future”.
“I don’t think it’s something that is so reeking with principle as to require an unwanted, expensive, unnecessary byelection,” Howard said.
Dutton said he did not agree with the call for Morrison to leave parliament and said the early days of the pandemic had required the government to make judgments about what was needed in a “difficult situation”.
“It was a war-like situation and there was concern about what would happen,” Dutton said.
In an explosive revelation following investigations from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Albanese said the former Liberal leader may have held those positions until the Coalition’s election loss in May.
It came just hours after Morrison himself claimed he didn’t recall being sworn into any other ministry beyond health, finance and resources.
“It is completely extraordinary that these appointments were kept secret by the Morrison government,” Albanese said at a press conference in Canberra, after briefings from his department.
“It’s undermined our democracy. It’s an attack on the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy as we know it.”
Albanese said in addition to his appointment as the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Morrison was appointed to administer the Department of Health on 14 March 2020, and the Department of Finance on 30 March 2020.
On 15 April 2021, Albanese said Morrison was appointed to administer the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources; then on 6 May 2021, Morrison was appointed to run the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Treasury.
“I can say that today, I have been informed by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet that between March 2020 in May 2021, the prime minister Scott Morrison was appointed to five additional portfolios,” Albanese said.
Guardian Australia has contacted former treasurer Josh Frydenberg, and Andrews for comment.
The prime minister claimed the former government had deliberately undermined the checks and balances system of Australian democracy.
“He told us he was a bulldozer and his Coalition colleagues just shrugged their shoulders and cheered him on, not in one election but in two elections,” Albanese said. “Turns out, he was the world’s first stealth bulldozer.
“Operating in secret, keeping the operations of the government from the Australian people themselves. And misleading parliament as to who was holding what portfolios and who was responsible.”
Albanese is seeking further legal advice about the legality of the ministerial arrangements, including from the solicitor general, which he expects to receive on Monday.
In a lengthy statement posted to his Facebook on Tuesday, Morrison said that he had put in place the arrangements because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic “as a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ safeguard”.
“In the event that I would have to use such powers I would have done so disclosing the authority by which I was making such decisions. The authority was pre-approved to ensure there would be no delay in being able to make decisions or take actions should the need arise,” he said.
“The crisis was a highly dynamic environment and it was important to plan ahead and take what precautions could lawfully be put in place to ensure I could act, as Prime Minister, if needed.”
He said he had only used his additional ministerial powers in relation to the Pep-11 offshore gas exploration decision, which he said was made by him after “observing all the necessary advice”.
“This was the only matter I involved myself directly with in this or any other Department.”
He said he had acted in “good faith” but apologised “for any offence to my colleagues.”
Albanese said he had not been advised that any of Morrison’s appointments had an end date, meaning the former prime minister may have held all five of those roles until the Coalition lost power. The prime minister said he had uncovered no reason why Morrison had gone into those additional roles, and raised concerns over secrecy around which minister was exercising important powers during the pandemic.
“There is no explanation that satisfies the swearing-in, in my view,” Albanese said.
“I, as leader of the opposition, agreed to special powers, for example for the Minister for Finance, to make payments in an emergency circumstance because of the pandemic. We had discussions, explicitly, with Mathias Cormann, as finance minister. We weren’t aware that we were giving authority to someone else as well, potentially, to make payments. And we did that on the basis of Mathias Cormann giving commitments about consultation should any of that expenditure be necessary.”
Albanese declined to answer questions about whether the government would support or introduce a censure motion on Morrison, but accused him of “misleading of parliament”.
The Greens have called for Morrison to be referred to the privileges committee to consider whether being appointed to ministries without telling parliament could amount to contempt or misleading parliament.
The party’s attorney general spokesperson, David Shoebridge, said the creation of “secret ministries” is an “attack on parliamentary accountability”.
Albanese would not engage with questions about whether he thought there should be consequences for Morrison’s actions but did hint that he thought Morrison should leave parliament.
“I think the people of Cook deserve to be represented by someone who is interested in our parliamentary democracy and in day-to-day politics.”