Scott Morrison falsely claimed he lacked powers to help Biloela family

<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Scott Morrison falsely suggested he lacked ministerial powers to help the Biloela family while he was sworn in to administer the home affairs department.

The day before the 2022 election, Morrison dead-batted calls to help the Murugappan family, claiming he needed to leave the decision to immigration minister, Alex Hawke.

The answer flies in the face of Morrison’s claim in the House of Representatives on Wednesday that if he had been asked about his appointment to administer multiple departments he “would have responded truthfully about the arrangements”.

Related: Scott Morrison becomes first former Australian prime minister to be censured by parliament

Morrison also claimed in December that he had exercised the power to scuttle the Pep-11 permit to explore for gas off the coast of Newcastle “as prime minister”, omitting the fact he had the power to do so because of one of his secret appointments.

The inquiry by former high court justice Virginia Bell found that several of Morrison’s secret appointments were an “exorbitant” way to overrule his ministers in the event of disagreement about their use of their powers.

Through his solicitor, Morrison told the inquiry his reasoning for being appointed to administer the home affairs department related to citizenship cancellation powers “as well as numerous direct ministerial powers under the Migration Act” including visa cancellations and “in relation to visas generally”.

On 20 May, Morrison was pressed by reporters on the campaign trail in Perth about why the government didn’t use “discretionary powers” to allow the Murugappan family to stay.

Morrison said that option “is available … under ministerial intervention”.

“And that ministerial intervention is done by the minister, not the prime minister. That’s not what the act provides.

“He [Hawke] makes that decision – no, that it’s his decision.”

Morrison doubled down, insisting it would be “inappropriate” to discuss the matter with Hawke because “it’s his decision … in the same way it was his decision over Novak Djokovic”.

Asked what his decision would be, Morrison replied: “Well, I’m not the minister.”

Morrison had been sworn in to administer the home affairs department on 6 May 2021, more than a year earlier.

A spokesperson for Morrison said he stood by the accuracy of the claim that “intervention is done by the minister” as “no reference [was] made to powers”.

“Morrison was not sworn to hold the office of the minister and was not acting as minister at that time and had not activated any authorities to act.”

On Wednesday Morrison told the lower house it was “false” to equate his decision to administer colleagues’ departments with appointments as minister.

Related: We can’t banish Scott Morrison to Pluto but he has been censured and we will always have that | First Dog on the Moon

But he also claimed: “Had I been asked about these matters at the time at the numerous press conferences I held, I would have responded truthfully about the arrangements I had put in place.”

The spokesperson also denied suggestions this was untruthful: “The question did not relate to what redundancies Mr Morrison had put in place to deal with the administration of departments.”

“Mr Morrison’s response addressed who was appropriately and lawfully handling the matter under the Act.”

Morrison’s spokesperson said the Biloela case study “is a good example of how the prime minister did not misuse his authorities to administer the department in the ordinary course of events that were being appropriately managed by the minister”.

In December, Morrison was asked if resources minister Keith Pitt supported the government’s decision to cancel the Pep-11 licence.

Morrison replied: “It’s a decision of the government and I decided to take the decision as the prime minister, which I’m authorised to do, and I did this because I wanted to ensure that we took a whole of government understanding of this decision and to take into account all of the factors.”

Morrison said he had “methodically worked through the proper process to make the ultimate decision and take all the necessary advice that I had to take and then form a decision”.

Despite Morrison’s claim he had made the decision “as the prime minister”, it was powers he gained on 15 April 2021 to administer the department of industry, science, energy and resources that allowed him to make the decision personally.

On Wednesday the House of Representatives voted to censure Morrison, making him the first former prime minister to be censured and the first MP since former small business minister Bruce Billson in 2018.

The leader of the house, Tony Burke, moved to censure Morrison for failing to disclose the five appointments “to the House of Representatives, the Australian people and the cabinet, which undermined responsible government and eroded public trust in Australia’s democracy”.

Burke cited those conclusions from the Bell inquiry, released on Friday. The motion passed shortly after noon, 86 votes to 50, despite the Coalition voting against the censure.

Morrison said his appointment to the home affairs portfolio was a “dormant redundancy” and accepted it was “unnecessary and that insufficient consideration was given to these decisions at the time, including to disclosure”.

“In relation to a decision to take authority to administer the department of industry, science resources and technology, for the purposes of being able to consider PEP-11, I do not resile from that action.

“The authority was lawfully sought and exercised on a specific matter solely.

“I considered it unnecessary to dismiss the minister to deal with this matter, as he was doing a fine job, and unlawful to inappropriately pressure him in relation to this decision.”