Six months after it broke, the story of Scott Morrison’s secret assumption of the powers to run much of the Australian government continues to shock even the most senior members of his cabinet.
The undisguised fury of former Coalition minister Karen Andrews after learning that she had unknowingly shared ministerial responsibilities with former Prime Minister Morrison might have been the only identifiable moment in a bizarre saga.
On Thursday, he took the news of another past secret intrusion fairly calmly, with more details emerging later in the day of a new clandestine date.
Documents released under freedom of information laws on Thursday revealed that one of Morrison’s closest friends, Ben Morton, was quietly given the same powers of attorney in early 2021 that Andrews was sworn to administer weeks later.
“I didn’t know about that,” Ms Andrews said.
“But look, given what we’ve heard, it’s not surprising that they didn’t tell me, but it’s not okay to behave (this) way.”
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese seized political advantage when the story of Morrison’s secret ministries broke late last year, calling for an independent inquiry to restore confidence in parliamentary government.
On Thursday, Ms Andrews noted that the emergence just a few months later of new information not provided to that inquiry presented a new public trust issue that now had to be resolved by Mr Albanese.
Just hours later, that got even more complicated when The Guardian revealed that National MP Michelle Landry was appointed to manage the Prime Minister and Cabinet Department in 2021 at the same time and in the same way as Mr Morton.
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said TND that it was not acceptable for information on ministerial appointments to be kept secret or redacted.
“The only way to close this strange chapter of the secret government is to let the sunlight in,” he said.
the new daily asked the Prime Minister and Cabinet Department, which houses all information on cabinet government, to publish a full list of all people who had been sworn in as ministers in Morrison’s government.
The department missed the Thursday night deadline and has yet to provide the information.
A Coalition source said Morton’s internal affairs appointment, unlike some of Morrison’s, had been listed in the government’s internal gazette.
But it was not included in the public lists outlining the cabinet’s responsibilities. Ms Andrews said the only possible explanation for her was that she was kept in the dark even as she discussed intimate details of her portfolio with Mr Morton.
“Why don’t they make that information public?” she said.
“I mean, why didn’t Ben Morton ever bring that up? Why has Scott Morrison never brought that up to me? It just makes absolutely no sense. There was no reason to keep that secret.”
Similarly, Ms Landry’s appointment as Deputy Minister for Children and Families and Deputy Minister for Northern Australia was on the list of public ministries on 30 March 2021.
But she was not listed among the ministers in the portfolio of the prime minister and the cabinet.
Three is a crowd
Mr. Morton and Ms. Andrews took up Home Affairs responsibilities on the same day that Peter Dutton resigned from them and took up a new role as Defense Minister.
“No,” he said, when asked if he knew he had two successors.
(Mr. Morrison would be sworn in his fifth portfolio two months later, in May 2021.)
Morton, a former bus driver on the central coast of New South Wales, became close to Morrison while leading the state’s Liberal party.
He went into the portfolio, bureaucrats were told, to take over a visa program for another of Morrison’s close friends, Alex Hawke.
But immigration policy expert Abul Rizvi said the change would only make sense if Morton needed to wield new ministerial powers, such as approving visas. There is no proof that he did it.
The former Western Australian MP, who lost his seat in the 2022 election, was running a visa program to attract global talent and big names to emigrate to Australia that failed to deliver on its promise.
“I thought it was pretty silly,” said Dr. Rizvi, upon first learning about the new visa program.
The global talent visa fell short of its goal of bringing 5,000 people of international importance to Australia, something that was never defined.
“The individual had to be nominated by a national body (which) was very loosely defined. And the person had to have an international reputation that was also very loosely defined. It was a disaster.”
Despite initially being promoted as too exclusive to many countries, the scheme ended up serving mostly as a means for people already in Australia to stay longer.
It was a classic example, Dr Rizvi said, of ad hoc immigration policies that have gradually made Australia’s migration system unworkable, but its design may have been even more flawed.
“The legal requirements are so subjective and so weak that the risk of corruption is enormous,” he said.
“I am not saying that there was corruption, but I am saying that the risk is enormous.”