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Scott Morrison and the Bell inquiry

  • 30 November 2022
  In 2020 and 2021 respectively, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison sought his own appointment, via the approval of Governor General David Hurley, to the following ministerial positions: health and finance (in 2020) and industry, science, energy and resources, home affairs, and treasury. With the exception of Greg Hunt from the health portfolio, other cabinet ministers had no knowledge of the move.

During the tenure of the Morrison government, much stress was placed on the importance of centralised executive power and secrecy. The Prime Minister, in the assessment of one of his loyalists and Liberal MP Alex Hawke, ‘got addicted to executive authority’. Accordingly, he stretched the limits of cabinet confidentiality to cover meetings with non-ministwhat doesers. He created the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission as, in Paul Karp’s words, ‘a shadow public service.’ 

The Prime Minister also blocked freedom of information applications regarding deliberations made in the ad hoc National Cabinet, a point found wanting by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.  In defiance of the decision, a bill was introduced to give the body the status of a ‘cabinet’ despite it being no more than an intergovernmental forum.

But for all his moves, including the multi-ministerial appointment spree, there was nothing in the practices of the Westminster system that would have made them unconstitutional or unlawful. As with such principles as responsible government and collective cabinet responsibility, these practices remain uncodified, the furniture of practice and assumption.

Nonetheless, the newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took it upon himself to charge Former High Court judge Virginia Bell with the task of investigating the appointments affair.

The picture that emerges from the report, released on November 25, is not flattering. For one, the moves made by Morrison are seen as unnecessary and unreasonable. And it seems that Morrison had even contemplated taking the reins — in secret, of course — of the department of agriculture, water and environment. Effectively, his actions constituted an assumption of executive power to overrule key ministerial decisions (this, he did do regarding the unpopular Pep-11 gas project, much to the surprise of Resources Minister Keith Pitt).

'The fundamental problem here is not that Morrison did what he did but how he went about it. Such multiple appointments, even if they do suggest something rotten in the state of cabinet trust, remain legal exercises of power.'

Morrison’s reasoning for the dramatic decisions was found deficient at several points. Moving into the health and finance portfolios was done ostensibly to anticipate