Australia publishes posts to avoid repeat takeover

CANBERRA – An investigation into a former Australian prime minister who secretly made appointments to several departments recommended on Friday that all such appointments be made public going forward to maintain trust in the government.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he would recommend his cabinet to accept all of the retired judge’s recommendations at a meeting next week.

Albanese ordered the inquiry in August after it was revealed that his predecessor, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, had taken the unprecedented steps to appoint himself to five ministerial posts between March 2020 and May 2021, usually unbeknownst to the current minister.

The extraordinary power grab came to light after Morrison’s Conservative coalition was voted out in May after nine years in power.

His unprecedented moves are seen as part of a broader trend in Australian politics to concentrate power in the office of leader at the expense of Britain’s Westminster tradition of delegating responsibilities among ministers.

Albanese blamed a culture of secrecy within the former government for their leader’s extraordinary accumulation of personal power.

“We shine sunlight on a shadow government that preferred to operate in the dark, a government that operated in a cult of secrecy and a culture of cover-up that arrogantly dismissed parliamentary and public scrutiny as a mere inconvenience,” he said Albanese told reporters.

“The actions of the former prime minister were extraordinary, they were unprecedented and they were wrong,” Albanese added.

Virginia Bell, a retired Supreme Court Justice, recommended in her inquiry the creation of legislation mandating the publication of public notices of ministerial appointments and the division of ministerial responsibilities.

Morrison, through his attorneys, was cooperating with the investigation but did not provide personal testimony.

Morrisonwho is now an opposition lawmaker, claims he gave himself the portfolios of health, finance, finance, resources and home affairs as an emergency measure necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Bell noted that making Morrison a dual minister was unnecessary as an acting minister could be appointed within minutes after the original minister was rendered incapacitated by COVID-19.

Bell found the reason Morrison called himself into most departments was his concern that “an acting minister might exercise his or her statutory powers in a manner with which Mr. Morrison did not agree”.

His only use of the secret forces had nothing to do with the pandemic. He reversed a decision by former Resources Secretary Keith Pitt to authorize a controversial gas drilling project near Sydney’s north shore that would have hurt his government’s re-election chances.

Asset Energy, a company behind the project, is fighting Morrison’s decision in federal court.

Asset accuses Morrison of bias and lack of procedural fairness when he blocked the project in March, court documents show.

Albanese declined to comment on Morrison’s decision on Friday as the matter is before the court.

Bell noted that Morrison also wanted former Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s power to block foreign investment in Australia that was not in the national interest and former Home Secretary Karen Andrews’ power to revoke the citizenship of dual-nationality extremists.

Morrison also considered giving himself a sixth ministerial portfolio – for the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment – but did not go ahead with the appointment, Bell reported. His reasons for not proceeding were not explained.

Bell noted that there had been no delineation of responsibilities between the multiple ministers and that there had been a risk of conflict when two ministers wanted to exercise the same power in different ways.

Frydenberg, who had been Morrison’s deputy leader of the Liberal Party, was voted out of office in the May election, unaware that the prime minister had also been a second treasurer.

Frydenberg described Morrison’s acquisition of the Treasury portfolio as “extreme exaggeration” in an interview published by Fairfax Media on Friday.

Bell found that the secrecy of Morrison’s appointments “was likely to undermine public confidence in government” and “eroded trust in government”.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton has previously said his and Morrison’s Liberal Party would support legislation that would prevent such a secret power accumulation from happening again.

Albanese’s centre-left Labor party came to power in the last election on promises of greater government transparency and accountability.

A bill to create a National Anti-Corruption Commission, a monitoring agency to investigate serious or systemic corruption in the public sector, passed the House of Representatives on Thursday and is expected to pass the Senate next week.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Australia publishes posts to avoid repeat takeover

Sarah Y. Kim

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