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COVID: Australia ex-PM says secret powers needed amid crisis

SYDNEY –

Scott Morrison said on Wednesday there was a need to give himself extra powers as Australia’s prime minister during the coronavirus crisis, saying criticism was fallacious and undemocratic as criticism mounted.

Current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is asking the Attorney General for an opinion on the legality of some of Morrison’s moves.

Many of Morrison’s own colleagues have been caught unawares by his decision to secretly appoint himself to five ministerial posts, which have only been revealed in recent days. Some have called for his resignation from parliament, where he is now an opposition lawmaker, after losing general elections 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 start of the COVID-19 crisis was that as Prime Minister he would be responsible for everything – “every drop of rain, every strain of the virus, everything that happened in that period,” Morrison said. “I felt it necessary to have authority, to have emergency powers of sorts, to act in extreme, unforeseen situations that would allow me to act in the national interest.”

He said he would rather be criticized for overshooting than for not doing anything. Asked why he hadn’t informed his own Cabinet colleagues of the appointments, let alone the general public, Morrison said his moves may have been misunderstood.

“I was concerned that these issues could be misunderstood and misunderstood and undermined ministers’ confidence in the performance of their duties at the time, and I did not think that was in the interest of the country,” Morrison said.

Albanese announced on Tuesday that Morrison was appointed Minister for Health, Finance, Home Affairs, Treasury and Industry between March 2020 and May 2021 – moves that appear to have given him the same powers as ministers already appointed to those positions. News Corp’s media had announced some of the dates over the weekend.

“How about an apology to the Australian people?” Albanese said after Morrison spoke. “The Australian people went to an election unaware that any of this had happened, unaware that a shadow government was operating in the dark.”

Albanese told reporters in Brisbane he found it incomprehensible that the appointments were not publicly announced at the time. He alluded to secrecy in the movie Fight Club.

“The first rule of power grab club is don’t talk about power grab club, and Scott Morrison broke that rule today,” Albanese said. “Scott Morrison was evasive, he was defensive, he was passive-aggressive and of course, he was self-serving. So at least he was true to himself today.”

Morrison used his additional powers on at least one occasion to overturn a decision by former Secretary of State Keith Pitt to approve a controversial gas project off the New South Wales coast.

Pitt said in a statement he was unaware that Morrison had joint oversight of his ministerial portfolio and that he stood by the decisions he made at the time.

At the time, Morrison said he had vetoed the project in his capacity as Prime Minister, and failed to mention that he had joint oversight of the portfolio.

Morrison said on Wednesday there were different circumstances in this particular case than his pandemic-related portfolios and he stood by his decision, which he said was in the national interest.

Morrison’s appointments were approved by Governor-General David Hurley, who said he had followed processes consistent with the Constitution by signing an “administrative instrument on the advice of the Prime Minister” – that was Morrison – to give Morrison the additional powers.

Karen Andrews, who served as Home Secretary under Morrison, said Morrison never told her he would also be appointed to the portfolio. She said Morrison should resign.

“The Australian people have been abandoned, they have been betrayed,” she said. “For a former prime minister to behave in this way, to be secretly sworn into other portfolios, undermines the Westminster system, it is absolutely unacceptable.”

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