By John McGregor, a translator and political violence researcher
Australia is currently lurching from one revelation to another through a constitutional crisis that nobody near power will acknowledge the severity of. As it emerges that the former Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison secretly appropriated a number of ministerships for himself, the now-ruling Labor Party is protecting the institutions of power instead of acknowledging the terrifying precedent established by Morrison’s hidden maneuvers. Labor is not shy of adopting authoritarian powers itself, and would prefer to make political gains out of the situation than dismantle a dangerous system.
In the past week, it has emerged that the former Australian PM Scott Morrison contrived to hold five other federal ministries while leading the government without the public knowing. A member of the conservative Liberal Party, he was replaced as PM at the May 2022 election by the Australian Labor Party’s Anthony Albanese but continues to sit in parliament.
In March 2020, Morrison appointed himself to the Department of Health and the Department of Finance. In April 2021, he appointed himself Minister of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. In May 2021, Morrison appointed himself to the Treasury and Home Affairs ministries. In each case, the appointments were not made public, and the existing ministers were not removed. As such, there were periods when there were two ministers, each empowered to act: one known to the public, and the other secret.
In Australia, some of these ministries have extraordinary powers with very little to balance them. When Novak Djokovic contested Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s decision to revoke his visa and remove him from Australia, the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia ruled in favor of Hawke.
This is because the Immigration Minister, alongside the Minister for Home Affairs, has incredible discretion to remove any visa holder they want from the country (as long as they are not acting irrationally in doing so).
Under the Biosecurity Act, when there is a human biosecurity emergency, the Minister for Health is granted extraordinary powers to respond to the emergency. On 18 March 2020, the Governor-General declared that there was such a human biosecurity emergency, granting the appointed Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, these powers, as well as PM Morrison, since he had also appointed himself to the Health ministry. Within days, these powers were used to ban Australian citizens and residents from leaving the country.
In April 2021, Morrison had himself appointed to the Ministry of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources alongside Keith Pitt. Morrison then used his position to reject a proposed gas project, Pep-11, that Pitt had been in favor of renewing. This appears to have been a tactical move to win voters, not a change of heart on the gas industry.
By making himself Minister of Home Affairs, Morrison granted himself the power to cancel visas and remove people from the country. By making himself Health Minister, Morrison gave himself the power to close the border. By making himself Minister of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, Morrison gave himself control of Australia’s significant natural resources. That any elected government minister has such wide discretion is in itself outrageous, but that Morrison managed to accumulate all these powers without the public even knowing is a mockery of the entire system.
The Governor-General, as the representative of the Monarch in Australia, swears in the PM and other ministers. Morrison was able to appoint himself to these roles because of the convention that the Governor-General will follow the advice of the PM. This is the defense that Governor-General David Hurley has relied on to explain why he didn’t notify the parliament or the ministries in question, or keep a public record of Morrison’s additional appointments.
Before entering the world of ceremonial politics, Hurley served in the Australian Army, and was Chief of the Defence Force between 2011 and 2014. His appointment to Governor-General in 2019 was on the recommendation of Morrison’s government.
Last week, when public revelations of the appointments began, Hurley even claimed in a statement that he “had no reason to believe that the appointments would not be communicated.” This excuse may have passed muster for some brief time after the first appointment, but by the time of the later appointments it was abundantly clear that they hadn’t been, and wouldn’t be, made public. Furthermore, Hurley neglected to record the appointments in annual reports or his diaries.
Hurley’s defense that he was just following orders, which he was bound by constitutional convention and personality to do, should hold little value for the Labor Party, but instead Labor PM Anthony Albanese has refused to criticize the Governor-General, saving his attacks for Morrison. This ignores both the evidence of the current situation and long-standing Labor policy, itself a lesson from a previous Liberal extra-parliamentary power grab.
In 1975, Labor PM Gough Whitlam was removed from power by the then Governor-General John Kerr, who immediately appointed the Liberal Malcolm Fraser as caretaker PM. This conspiracy to remove the elected leader of the country flew in the face of constitutional convention and it is one of the key drivers of the movement for a republic in the Australian Labor Party.
When the Albanese government was elected just months ago it included an assistant minister for the republic, Matt Thistlethwaite, who claimed that Australia would be ready for a referendum on the issue by a second Labor term (the public will spend the first term deciding on a referendum to include an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the constitution).
In light of this history, and the 2021 Labor national platform promising to work toward a republic, the revelation that the former PM, through the Governor-General, managed to secretly accumulate unchecked powers should spur an immediate and desperate push for a republic. Albanese has made no such push; even Thistlethwaite didn’t criticize Hurley, he expressed a vague hope that with an Australian head of state “maybe then we can get more transparency and accountability in decisions such as this”.
As more revelations emerge about the many Morrison ministries, and more questions are asked about the practical realities of this system, it becomes clearer that many in the media (in particular the Murdoch media) and both major parties must have known something.
Labor’s hesitancy, despite its current position of power, to attempt any major reforms is due to its own desire for authoritarian powers. During 2020 and 2021, as Scott Morrison accumulated ministries at the federal level, Labor state premiers exercised wide-ranging emergency powers to implement some of the most draconian lockdown measures on the planet.
Melbourne, under Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews, endured one of the longest lockdowns on the planet. In an island nation, state premiers were also able to effectively shut the national border by ordering the airports closed. When union workers protested against vaccine mandates in the construction industry in Victoria, Andrews simply ordered the industry shut down.
Throughout its entire existence, the Australian Labor Party has failed to adequately stand up against the interests of capital. As early as 1913, Lenin noted that the Australian Labor Party was actually a liberal-bourgeois party. He predicted that it would eventually make way for a socialist Labor Party.
Instead, as the capitalist order in Australia has confronted the crises of the 20th and 21st centuries, the Australian Labor Party has transformed into an increasingly authoritarian tool of this same capitalist system. Despite claiming to represent working Australians, the Labor Party is more interested in how it can take power over them. Scott Morrison has now shown how easy it is in the Australian political structures to seize almost dictatorial powers, and the Labor Party has no interest in dismantling such a powerful system of control over the population.