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Bell report finds secret Morrison ministries ‘corrosive of trust in government’

The reporting stemming from an inquiry undertaken by former High Court judge Virginia Bell into Scott Morrison’s secret appointment to multiple ministries has been delivered to the Albanese government — with some scathing observations.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 25 November 2022 Politics
Bell report finds secret Morrison ministries ‘corrosive of trust in government’
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In late August, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese charged the Hon Justice Virginia Bell AC, former justice of the High Court of Australia, with the task of leading an inquiry into the appointment of the former PM, Scott Morrison, to several ministerial portfolios - including treasury, home affairs, health, finance and industry, science, energy and resources - without the public’s knowledge.

In the report’s executive summary, Ms Bell noted that given that the appointments were not disclosed to the parliament or to the public, and that Mr Morrison did not exercise any of the powers he enjoyed by reason of his appointments apart from making the PEP-11 decision, “the implications of the appointments are limited”.

“Mr Morrison does not appear to have attached any significance to the fact that, from the time of its making, each appointment operated in law to charge him with responsibility for the administration of the whole department. There was no delineation of responsibilities between Mr Morrison and the other minister or ministers appointed to administer the department,” she wrote.


“In the absence of such delineation, there was a risk of conflict had Mr Morrison decided to exercise a statutory power inconsistently with the exercise of the power by another minister administering the department.”

The 2021 appointments were not taken with a view to Mr Morrison having any active part in the administration of the department, Ms Bell detailed, but rather, “to give Mr Morrison the capacity to exercise particular statutory power should the minister charged with responsibility for the exercise of that power propose to do so in a manner with which Mr Morrison disagreed, or fail to make a decision that Mr Morrison wanted to be made”.

“In terms of the functioning of the departments this was as Dr Gordon de Brouwer PSM, Secretary for Public Sector Reform, observes ‘extremely irregular’.”

As long as the appointments remained secret, and Mr Morrison elected not to exercise his powers as the minister administering a department, “it is not apparent that there was any impact on the structure of the ministry”, Ms Bell found.

“Nevertheless, recourse to being appointed to administer multiple departments seems an exorbitant means of addressing Mr Morrison’s concern about his ministers’ exercise of statutory power in cases that were not subject to Cabinet oversight.”

“Ultimately, he had the power to dismiss a minister if he considered the minister might exercise a power in a way that he, Mr Morrison, considered not to be conducive to the national interest.”

“Given that the Parliament was not informed of any of the appointments, it was unable to hold Mr Morrison to account in his capacity as minister administering any of these five departments,” Ms Bell wrote.

“As the Solicitor-General concluded, the principles of responsible government were “fundamentally undermined” because Mr Morrison was not “responsible” to the Parliament, and through the Parliament to the electors, for the departments he was appointed to administer.”

Finally, Ms Bell continued, “the lack of disclosure of the appointments to the public was apt to undermine public confidence in government”.

“Once the appointments became known, the secrecy with which they had been surrounded was corrosive of trust in government.”

In a statement, Prime Minister Albanese said that the “unprecedented and inexcusable actions of the former PM were emblematic of the culture of secrecy in which the previous government operated”.

“I will recommend to the next meeting of Cabinet that the Albanese Government accept all six of Justice Bell’s recommendations,” the PM proclaimed.

“The quick implementation of these recommendations will ensure that the Australian public can have full confidence that this breach of trust will never happen again.”

“I thank Justice Bell and her team for the efforts in conducting this Inquiry,” he concluded.

Last month, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus KC also had to write to Mr Morrison to request that he refrain from making additional disclosures from his time in government, as further apparent disclosures could “undermine national security and the integrity of the cabinet process”.

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