Scott Morrison’s ministerial meshuffle: why did he do it, what was happening and where to now?

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Scott Morrison secretly swore himself into five extra portfolios – treasury, home affairs, finance, health and resources – when he was prime minister, prompting a legal probe from the federal government and the solicitor general about the use of those ministerial powers.

Four of the Coalition ministers in those portfolios now say they had no idea of Morrison’s secret administration of their departments, with former home affairs minister Karen Andrews even calling for the ex-prime minister to resign from parliament.

Related: Job lot: internet gets to work on Scott Morrison’s multiple ministries mayhem

Morrison has defended his actions as necessary “safeguards” during the pandemic, but he faces serious scrutiny on several fronts: an internal investigation by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and some of the nation’s top legal officers, a possible House of Representatives probe over potential misleading of parliament, and a court challenge over his decision as resources minister to block the PEP-11 gas exploration.

The timeline

After the DPMC investigations, the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said Morrison was appointed to administer:

  • The Department of Health on 14 March 2020;

  • The Department of Finance on 30 March 2020;

  • The Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources on 15 April 2021;

  • And both the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Treasury on 6 May 2021

Albanese said Morrison may have held those positions until the Coalition’s election loss in May, saying there was “no end date in the briefing that I’ve been given”.

The revelation that Morrison was the minister for home affairs and treasurer came just hours after he said he didn’t recall being sworn into any other ministry beyond health, finance and resources. In a Facebook statement on Tuesday afternoon, Morrison said he “had not recollected these arrangements” until seeking advice from DPMC. “There was a lot going on at the time,” he said.

Why did he do it?

Albanese said he hadn’t uncovered the reasons for Morrison’s actions.

Morrison said it was “necessary to put in place safeguards, redundancies and contingencies to ensure the continuity and effective operation of government during this crisis period”.

He said it was done “should the need arise due to incapacity of a minister or in the national interest” and raised concerns about existing ministers in those portfolios potentially being too “junior” to be across details of the pandemic response.

Morrison said he took finance and health in the early stages of the pandemic, partly due to the special powers under the Biosecurity Act and to administer government payments. Morrison did not explain why he waited until mid-2021 to make the treasury and home affairs changes – this was before the Melbourne lockdown in late May 2021 and the Sydney lockdowns in June that year.

“I did not consider it was likely that it would be necessary to exercise powers in these areas, but the future was very difficult to predict during the pandemic,” Morrison said of home affairs and treasury. “In hindsight these arrangements were unnecessary.”

What was happening at the time?

Morrison’s statement noted his early 2020 decisions were made in the context of Peter Dutton, then home affairs minister, being one of Australia’s early Covid cases, and British PM Boris Johnson becoming gravely ill with the virus. Morrison said he was worried about critical ministers being left sick or hospitalised.

The jobkeeper wage subsidy was announced by the government on 30 March 2020, the same day Morrison became finance minister.

The 2021 federal budget was delivered by co-treasurer Josh Frydenberg on 11 May 2021 – just five days after Morrison entered the treasury role.

In April and May 2021, the federal government was embroiled in controversy over the banning of flights and returning Australians from India, as that country battled a concerning Covid outbreak. It was the first time Australians had been blocked from returning home, a decision made by the home affairs minister – a portfolio Morrison added to his responsibilities on 6 May, just days before the flight ban was to end.

Related: Scott Morrison secretly appointed to five ministries, including Treasury and home affairs, says PM

Andrews was sworn in as home affairs minister on 30 March 2021, just weeks before Morrison swore himself into that role. She said she didn’t know Morrison had done that. It’s been reported Frydenberg, finance minister Mathias Cormann and resources minister Keith Pitt also did not know at the time they were being shadowed.

Morrison admitted he took the resources portfolio specifically to make a decision about the Pep-11 exploration.

What questions remain?

Did Morrison receive extra pay for his additional roles? Albanese said he was “not aware of any financial issues arising from it” but didn’t rule that out.

Has Morrison broken any laws? Albanese is still awaiting advice from the solicitor general but told 2SM radio he wasn’t alleging any illegality.

Who else knew? Albanese said “some members of [the Department of] Prime Minister and Cabinet” may have known and is investigating if other departments or their secretaries were aware.

Did Morrison ever use the ministerial powers? The former PM said he only used the resource minister’s powers regarding Pep-11. Albanese said this would be included in his advice from the solicitor general promising he would have “more to say about that”.

What happens now?

The Greens plan to refer the matter to parliament’s powerful privileges committee to investigate whether Morrison misled parliament by not disclosing the ministerial arrangements. Albanese accused Morrison of “misleading parliament” but declined to speculate on what may happen when politicians return to Canberra in September.

A court challenge over Pep-11 continues and Albanese said he expected further legal advice from the solicitor general next week, including whether Morrison had exercised any of the ministerial powers.

“I am seeking further advice as to the use of these extraordinary powers by Scott Morrison,” Albanese said.