Former Australian PM refuses to step down from party leadership over scandal

“I was steering the ship in the middle of the tempest,” Mr Morrison said. Photo: Sam Mooy/Getty Images

Australia's former prime minister Scott Morrison deflected a barrage of criticism on Wednesday over his decision to clandestinely appoint himself into five key ministries during the pandemic and said he would not be resigning from federal parliament.

To recall, Mr Morrison stepped down as leader of the Liberal Party after losing a general election in May. On Wednesday he spoke at a news conference to confront a wave of criticism from the Labor government and his own party over the unprecedented move.

In the opinion of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Mr Morrison, by secretly appointing himself to five portfolios including home affairs, treasury, health, finance and resources between 2020 and 2021, had attacked the Westminster system of government. The accumulation of ministerial roles began with the health and finance ministries in 2020 under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even more surprisingly, three of the ministers claimed they were clueless to the fact that Mr Morrison shared power over their ministries until the revelations this week. The solicitor general will provide advice on the matter to PM Albanese on Monday.

“This is fundamentally a trashing of our democratic system,” PM Albanese said on Wednesday, after listening to Morrison's press conference.

Mr Morrison said he did not interfere with the ministers’ doings, except once, when he turned down a resources project. He said he did not inform the ministers because he would only use the powers in an emergency.

The former PM went on to stress that his decision to secretly swear himself into five key ministries was dictated by his feeling of responsibility for the nation, which was his alone.

‘Steering the ship in the tempest’

“I was steering the ship in the middle of the tempest,” Mr Morrison told reporters, recalling how the pandemic arrived in Australia in 2020. “As prime minister only I could really understand the weight of responsibility that was on my shoulders and on no one else.

Mr Morrison rejected calling his action a “takeover” of the ministries, after being sworn in by the Governor General.

“The fact that ministers were unaware of these things is actually proof of my lack of interference or intervention in any of their activities,” he felt.

George Williams, a constitutional law expert at the University of New South Wales, said that “The secrecy itself is what really gets to the heart of why this is a problem,” adding that Australia had a cabinet-based system that relies on a group of people governing a country and not a presidential system.

Earlier on Wednesday, treasurer Jim Chalmers described Mr Morrison's behaviour as “dictatorial”. Mr Chalmers said whether Mr Morrison remained in parliament was a test of Liberal Opposition leader Peter Dutton's leadership.

Mr Morrison held his own saying the emergency powers were put in place by a democratically elected prime minister and according to law.

Commenting on why he had sworn himself into home affairs minister and treasurer, Mr Morrison said this had been partly due to the national budget being delivered in May and negotiations with Britain and the United States over the AUKUS deal for nuclear submarines.

Home Affairs minister Clare O'Neil told ABC TV the intelligence agencies were unaware Morrison was home affairs minister.

“The head of ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Organisation], an agency for which I am responsible, did not know that there was a second home affairs minister for an entire year... This creates real vulnerabilities for us as a country,” she said.