Much criticism has been levelled at former Prime Minister Scott Morrison for assuming full ministerial powers across several major portfolios of his then government – health, resources, finance, home affairs and even treasury.
Although this was done quite constitutionally, being signed off by the Governor-General seemingly without any protest or expression of concern, this has been labelled by the new Labor government, the media, most commentators and even some of Morrison’s former cabinet colleagues as being a ‘scandal’.
The issue is not whether it was unconstitutional or illegal, which it plainly was not, but that it was secret. Indeed, even some of Morrison’s cabinet colleagues whose powers he had assumed were unaware of this action.
Further, it is being argued that if not unconstitutional or illegal, then Morrison was breaking Westminster ‘conventions’ of cabinet solidarity and that parliament was not informed.
Of course, arguing about Westminster ‘conventions’ is always a bit tricky as they are neither statutorily defined, static nor disconnected from the politics of the day. What is a ‘convention’ to some on one day, is to be ignored on another depending on the circumstances like some type of ‘crisis’. The problem is that the definition of a ‘crisis’ is inevitably caught up in politics. Where you stand on issues depends on whose side you sit.
Hence, political combatants in parliament have a habit of changing their views about when a convention should be followed and when it should not. Labor leader Gough Whitlam when in opposition, believed the Senate had a constitutional right to block the Gorton Coalition Government’s 1970 taxation bill and thus budget. However, when the Coalition effectively did so to his government’s budget in 1975, Whitlam argued they were breaking a Westminster ‘convention’ that an upper house should not block a lower house’s legislative program!
And while everyone is concerned about Scott Morrison’s ‘secrecy’ let us not forget that the whole basis of cabinet government is about secrecy and confidentiality. Cabinet solidarity is all about secrecy – arguments and disagreements in cabinet are not to be publicly aired.
Also, let’s put in context the time when Morrison made those decisions. Australia, like the rest of the world was in the midst of a pandemic about which little was initially known. Horrific scenarios of death rates, economic collapse, and the end of civilisation as we know it, were being forecast.
Let us also not forget the extreme actions by state governments, made in the name of ‘health advice’ that was never made public such as the mandatory requirement to wearing a mask in your own car!
In addition, many other Westminster conventions were being broken at the time such as the truncation of parliamentary sittings and the overnight passing of legislation and urgent large budget expenditures.
These have all been overlooked. Some of the critics of Morrison on what is in essence a minor issue, were silent when these other aspects of our democracy were being overridden.
Moreover, it seems Morrison did not, with one possible exception, use any of these powers. No harm was done. No public money was spent or wasted. No-one was arrested or imprisoned.
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