Scott Morrison faces probe over secret ministry claims as government seeks legal advice

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

Scott Morrison has dismissed questions about reports alleging he secretly appointed himself to numerous ministry roles during his time as prime minister, saying he hasn’t “engaged in any day-to-day politics” since losing the May election.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, received a briefing from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet on Monday afternoon after he demanded advice on the legality of the arrangements that reportedly saw Morrison name himself minister for health, finance and resources at stages during his government.

Related: The secrecy factor is telling in Scott Morrison’s alleged ministerial portfolio grabs | Malcolm Farr

Albanese accused Morrison of running a “shadow government”, and displaying “tinpot” behaviour. The attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, said Morrison had behaved in a “dictatorial, but worst of all, secretive way”.

A spokesperson for the governor general, David Hurley, confirmed Morrison was appointed to “administer portfolios other than the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet”. He said it was “not uncommon” and that such appointments did not require a swearing-in ceremony, only the signing of an administrative instrument.

Guardian Australia has sought confirmation of exactly which portfolios Morrison was sworn into by Hurley, and when.

Morrison declined to comment on Monday.

He told Sky News: “I haven’t seen what he [Albanese] has said. Since leaving the job I haven’t engaged in any day-to day-politics.”

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, who was defence minister in the Morrison government, told the ABC he was not consulted about the appointments.

And he admitted he did not know if Morrison had been sworn in as the defence minister.

“I wasn’t consulted, I wasn’t part of the decision making process,” he said.

When asked if Morrison was sworn in as defence minister he responded: “Not to my knowledge.”

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull told ABC’s 7.30 program on Monday night that the story of the alleged secret ministerial self-appointments was “one of the most appalling things I have ever heard”.

“This is sinister stuff,” Turnbull said. “This is secret government.

“To be honest, I can’t understand it… Scott was meant to be leading a centre-right conservative government. This is not conservative. This is throwing aside all of the traditions of Westminster parliamentary democracy.”

Turnbull also denied that he had ever held secret ministerial roles himself while in government.

Keith Pitt, the former minister for resources, said the arrangements around Morrison’s allegedly secretive ministerial self-appointments were “unusual” but declined to wade further into the debate.

Pitt told Sky News on Monday that decisions around ministerial appointments were “clearly not decisions that I was involved with”, but acknowledged “there’s no doubt it was unusual”.

Related: Scott Morrison used self-appointed powers to override minister on unpopular Pep11 gas-drilling permit

Guardian Australia confirmed Mathias Cormann, the former finance minister, was not aware that Morrison had given himself the powers of the finance minister and only learned about the alleged assumption of powers this week.

Greg Hunt, the former health minister, was understood to have discussed plans for Morrison to be appointed health minister in meetings with then attorney general Christian Porter in early March 2020 as the government developed internal protocols for the application of the Biosecurity Act. While it was not believed to have been signed off by a full meeting of cabinet, sources suggest it had been taken to the National Security Committee of cabinet.

It was understood the government used an administrative instrument that was signed off by the governor general that allowed for an additional minister to be assigned, without the need to remove the “primary” minister. It was the same mechanism used to delegate particular legislation to other ministers in the event of a conflict of interest.

However, Guardian Australia understands that Porter, despite helping to develop the advice in relation to Hunt, was unaware that Morrison had used the same instrument to take over the portfolio responsibilities of finance, which was held by Cormann until late 2020, and later his own portfolio of industry and science.

It is understood that Morrison did not use the ministerial powers for the health or finance portfolios.

Nationals senator and former minister Bridget McKenzie called the developments “concerning”.

Related: Scott Morrison was sworn in to several portfolios other than prime minister. How can this be done? | Anne Twomey for the Conversation

“All of this needs to be made clear … If there were two ministers effectively exercising the same authority within cabinet, who was the senior minister? What if they disagreed? What implications does that have for decisions ministers made and signed off?”

Guardian Australia contacted the departments of health, finance and industry for information on whether the secretaries of those departments were aware of Morrison’s alleged secret appointment, whether Morrison had exercised the powers available as minister, or whether those departments had provided any legal advice to his office. Spokespeople for all three departments refused to comment, instead referring inquiries to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet did not respond by publication time.

“I have asked the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. He will be seeking advice from appropriate people including the solicitor general about all of these issues. I’ll be getting a full briefing this afternoon,” Albanese said on Monday.