SYDNEY (AP) — Scott Morrison said Wednesday that giving himself extra powers when he was Australia’s prime minister was necessary during the coronavirus crisis, as criticism mounted that the measures were misleading and undemocratic.
The current prime minister, Anthony Albanese, is seeking the attorney general’s opinion on the legality of some of Morrison’s moves.
Many of Morrison’s own colleagues were shocked by his decision to secretly appoint himself to five ministerial roles, which have only been revealed in recent days. Some have called for him to resign from Parliament, where he is now an opposition lawmaker after losing the general election to Albanese earlier this year.
But Morrison told reporters in Sydney that while he apologized for offending his colleagues, he stood by his actions.
The expectation at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis was that, as prime minister, he was responsible for everything: “every drop of rain, every strain of the virus, everything that happened during that period of time,” Morrison said.
“I believed that it was necessary to have authority, to have what were effectively emergency powers, to exercise in extreme situations that would be unforeseen, that would allow me to act in the national interest.”
He said he would rather be criticized for stepping out of line than for not taking action. When asked why he didn’t inform his own cabinet colleagues about the appointments, let alone the general public, Morrison said his moves could have been misunderstood.
“I was concerned that these issues might have been misconstrued and misunderstood, and undermine the confidence of ministers in carrying out their duties at the time, and I did not consider that to be in the interest of the country,” Morrison said.
Albanese revealed Tuesday that between March 2020 and May 2021, Morrison was appointed minister for health, finance, home affairs, treasury and industry, moves that appeared to have given him the same powers as ministers already appointed to those positions. News Corp. media had revealed some of the appointments over the weekend.
“It is completely extraordinary that the Morrison government has kept these appointments secret from the Australian people,” Albanese said.
Morrison used his extra powers on at least one occasion to overturn a decision by former Minister Keith Pitt to approve a controversial gas project off the coast of New South Wales.
Pitt said in a statement that he was unaware that Morrison had joint oversight of his ministerial portfolio and that he stands behind the decisions he made at the time.
At the time, Morrison said he was vetoing the project in his capacity as prime minister and did not mention that he had joint oversight of the portfolio.
Morrison said Wednesday that there were different circumstances in that particular case than with his pandemic-related portfolios, and stood by his decision that he believed was in the national interest.
Morrison’s appointments were authorized by Governor-General David Hurley, who said he followed processes consistent with the constitution in signing an “administrative instrument on the advice of the Prime Minister,” who was Morrison, to give Morrison additional powers.
Karen Andrews, who served as Home Affairs Secretary under Morrison, said Morrison never told her that he, too, would be appointed to the portfolio. She said that Morrison should resign.
“The Australian people have been let down, they have been betrayed,” he said. “For a former prime minister to have behaved in such a way, secretly swearing into other portfolios, undermines the Westminster system, it is absolutely unacceptable.”
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