Judge investigates how former Australian Prime Minister gained secret powers

CANBERRA, Australia — A retired judge has been appointed to investigate how former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was able to secretly amass unprecedented ministerial powers in defiance of political conventions.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced Friday that former Supreme Court Justice Virginia Bell will report on the findings of her investigation into Morrison’s secret coup on November 25.

Morrison secretly appointed himself to five ministerial posts between March 2020 and May 2021, mostly without the original minister’s knowledge.

Albanian, who replaced Morrison in the May election, quoted Solicitor General Stephen Donaghue’s legal opinion that while the appointments were legal, they undermined the principle of responsible government.

“We need a quick and appropriate investigation that is not about politics, but about how this happened, why it happened, who knew about it,” Albanian said.

“The inquiry will make recommendations to the government on any changes that could provide greater transparency and accountability to ensure this never happens again,” Albanian added.

Morrison’s extraordinary coup is seen as part of a wider trend in Australian politics to concentrate power within a leader’s office, at the expense of Britain’s Westminster tradition of delegating responsibilities to ministers.

Donaghue wrote in his scathing 29-page legal opinion released this week: “It is impossible for Parliament to hold ministers accountable for the management of departments if it does not know which ministers are responsible for which departments.”

Morrison, who is now an opposition MP, claims he gave himself the health, finance, treasury, resources and home affairs portfolios as an emergency measure necessitated by the coronavirus crisis.

But his only known use of the secret powers had nothing to do with the pandemic. He overturned a decision by former raw materials minister Keith Pitt to approve a controversial gas drilling project near Sydney’s north coast that would have hurt his Conservative coalition’s reelection chances.

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Deputy opposition leader Sussan Ley said Friday the investigation was evidence that Albanians were more focused on the past than on governing.

“Mr Albanian’s priorities are all about the past. He is obsessed and consumed with the politics of the past, when Australians need him to focus on the challenges of their future,” Ley said.

But three of Australia’s surviving former Conservative Prime Ministers have criticized Morrison’s secretive powers. Morrison is the only other surviving Prime Minister of the conservative Liberal Party.

Malcolm Turnbull, who replaced Morrison as prime minister in 2018 in an internal power struggle within the government, described his successor’s secret wallets as “sinister stuff.”

“This is a secret government. This is one of the most appalling things I’ve ever heard in our federal government. The idea that a prime minister would be sworn in secretly in other ministries is unbelievable,” Turnbull told the Australian Broadcasting Corp last week.

Former Home Secretary Karen Andrews, who only discovered this month that Morrison had shared her portfolio, has demanded that he leave parliament.

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