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  • Devina Singh

The Erosion of Democracy in Australia

As featured in Edition 41, available here.

By DEVINA SINGH (2nd year - History and Politics - Gurgaon, India)

It has recently come to light that former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was self-appointed the joint minister for health, finance, treasury, home affairs and resources since March 2020; before losing power earlier this year. These self-appointments gave Morrison decision-making powers in these ministries, in addition to his Prime Ministerial powers. This has come as a shock to both voters and former ministers. Karen Andrews (home affairs minister under Morrison) has also called for Morrison to resign from parliament, arguing that his self-appointment “undermines the integrity of the government”.

A book excerpt published in The Australian revealed that the self-appointments started in March 2020. He swore himself in as joint health minister, fearing that new powers afforded to former health minister Greg Hunt via an emergency trigger in the biosecurity act would give Hunt control over the entire country. The changes in the Act meant that Hunt could issue orders at odds with “any other law” and couldn’t be stopped by parliament. Morrison, ironically, wanted more “checks and balances”, believing that one minister should not be able to wield that much power. It seems that Morrison was then unable to stop himself, and swore himself into four other ministries besides health.

Governor-General David Hurley had sworn Morrison into this government of just one person - something that is frighteningly undemocratic. Whilst it can be argued that Hurley was only acting on the advice of the Prime Minister at the time, many critics still berated Hurley’s poor decision to approve the appointment without ensuring public disclosure. More blasphemous was the fact that besides Hurley, many people were in the know. Morrison has disclosed that there were people in his office who were “directly responsible for managing these specific things”.

Current PM Anthony Albanese remarked that the appointments were a “misleading of parliament”, warning that Morrison would be held accountable. Following the exposé, Morrison apologized saying that he swore himself into these positions to handle emergent crises during the pandemic - “These were extraordinary times and they required extraordinary measures to respond”. As to why he never announced the appointments publicly, Morrison said that disclosure would undermine the confidence of his ministers and alarm the public. He said that it “would have caused unnecessary angst in the middle of a pandemic and could have impacted the day-to-day functioning of the government”. Not disclosing them, however, has done a lot worse.

This move has serious repercussions for democracy in Australia. Morrison not only undermined his own cabinet but also destroyed all trust from voters. The self-appointments meant that Morrison was running a “secret government” behind the backs of the publicly appointed government. It hasn’t yet been ascertained whether the appointments were illegal, but they are certainly undemocratic. Two of the pillars of democracy are representation and accountability. Morrison's actions meant that millions of Australians were stripped of representation on a national stage. His secrecy makes it incredibly difficult for any form of accountability, whether from the people, media or politicians to take place.

The appointments aren’t just a blight on Morrison, but on the institutions of democracy and premiership. Whilst a majority of the ministers themselves weren’t informed, the fact is that there are people who were - and they too chose to not inform anybody. Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce was aware of Morrison’s additional powers at the time. Joyce chose to remain silent out of fear that his party (the National party) that was in alliance with Morrison’s Liberal Party would lose control of one of the ministries Morrison had assumed powers of. Morrison’s self-appointments seriously damage the relationships between governments and their voters, as Australians and the rest of the world are left wondering how much they can really trust their leaders.

The Australian electorate severely punished Morrison at the polls well before the world learned of the incredibly harmful legacy that he left behind, even if there were no illegalities found by the Solicitor General. It is however a bigger ethical and moral question than the legality of this case as many feel that Morrison has seriously undermined the workings of any responsible government, and eroded the social contract between a government and its electorate.

Image: Flickr/ Casino Connection



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