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Australia inquiry finds Morrison’s secret roles undermined trust

The former prime minister has quietly appointed himself to a number of roles during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying he was needed in case ministers fell ill.

Australia will introduce new rules to increase transparency in ministerial appointments after an investigation into secret ministerial roles by then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison found they eroded public trust in government.

Morrison, who lost power in the May general election, secretly amassed five ministerial posts during the coronavirus pandemic: health, finance, treasury, resources and internal affairs.

Three ministers later said they were unaware they shared power with Morrison.

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An investigation led by former Superior Court Judge Virginia Bell found that the appointments likely damaged public confidence in the government. Echoing the attorney general’s comments, Bell said in a report released Friday that a lack of parliamentary accountability undermines accountable government.

“Once the appointments became known, the secrecy with which they had been surrounded eroded trust in the government,” Bell said.

Morrison previously said the appointments were necessary during the pandemic to ensure continuity and as a precaution in case a minister became incapacitated. But the report raised doubts on both counts, arguing, for example, that interim ministers could have been appointed quickly if necessary.

In a statement shortly after the report was released, Morrison pointed to the criticism but defended his actions as legal and said he would remain in parliament, where he sits as an MP after losing the election to May.

“As prime minister, my knowledge of issues related to national security and the national interest was broader than that known to individual ministers and certainly the Inquiry,” he said in a Facebook post.

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“This limits the ability of third parties to draw definitive conclusions on such matters.”

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Bell recommended six changes, including legislation requiring public notice of ministerial appointments.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who said in August that Morrison’s actions “undermined democracy”, said his government would adopt all six recommendations.

“We are shining sunlight on a shadow government that preferred to operate in the dark. A government that operated on a cult of secrecy and a culture of cover-up,” Albanese said at a news conference after the report was released.

Bell noted that because Morrison’s additional powers were only exercised once, the implications of the appointments were limited.

While calling it “worrying” that then-senior official Phil Gaetjens, who prepared reports on the appointments, did not press for more information, the inquiry said responsibility for decisions rested with the then-prime minister.

Morrison contacted the investigation through an attorney.

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