CANBERRA – Australia’s former Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday listed his achievements in government including standing up to a “bullying“ China as he unsuccessfully argued against being censured by the Parliament for secretly amassing multiple ministerial powers.
The center-left Labor Party government introduced to the House of Representatives a rare censure motion against Morrison, who as a conservative prime minister took the unprecedented steps of appointing himself to five ministerial roles between March 2020 and May 2021, usually without the knowledge of the existing minister.
The House passed the motion 86 to 50. It was sure to pass because Labor holds a majority in the House, while most opposition lawmakers dismissed it as “political payback.” Morrison is the first former prime minister to be censured.
A censure motion against Morrison, who remains an opposition lawmaker, has no effect other than to tarnish his political legacy.
Morrison publicly commented on the controversy Wednesday — the first time since his power grab was exposed in August through interviews he had given to two journalists about his responses in government to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, he has released two written statements through lawyers.
Morrison said he gave himself additional ministerial powers at a time that Australia was “dealing with extreme uncertainty and unpredictability.”
The criticisms had been “made from the safety and relative calm of hindsight,” he said.
“I am proud … at a time of extreme trial, my government stood up and faced the abyss of uncertainty that our country looked into and the coercion of a regional bully and saw Australia through the storm,” Morrison told the House, referring to China.
“Our nation faced the greatest challenges we had experienced since the Second World War: a drought, natural disasters, a global pandemic, the global and domestic recession, the pandemic cause and a rising and assertive China seeking to coerce Australia into submission,” Morrison added.
The censure motion said that by failing to inform his Cabinet, the Parliament and the Australian people of his additional ministerial powers, Morrison had undermined responsible government and eroded public trust in Australia’s democracy.
The government, elected in May, cited the findings of an inquiry into Morrison’s extraordinary power grab.
Retired High Court Justice Virginia Bell in her inquiry recommended last week laws be created to require public notices of ministerial appointments be published as well as the divisions of ministerial responsibilities. The government introduced such laws to the House on Wednesday.
Morrison said he welcomed Bell’s recommendations, saying his office had never issued instructions forbidding his additional ministerial powers being made public.
Morrison gave himself the portfolios of health, finance, treasury, home affairs and resources. But he only exercised those powers once when he overturned a decision by former Resources Minister Keith Pitt to approve a contentious gas drilling project off the north Sydney coast that would have harmed their government’s reelection chances.
Asset Energy, a company behind the project, is fighting Morrison’s decision in the Federal Court to block development of the 4,576-square-kilometer (1,767-square-mile) offshore basin known as PEP-11.
Asset accuses Morrison of bias and failing to provide procedural fairness when he blocked the project in March.
Morrison said he duplicated Pitt’s powers to overturn that specific decision.
“The decision I made on PEP-11 was the correct one,” Morrison said.
Sydney independent Sophie Scamps, who campaigned against PEP-11 before the May election and supported the censure motion, described Morrison’s power grab as “a deeply concerning lurch toward authoritarianism.”
Fellow independent Kate Chaney, who also supported the censure motion, said Australia under Morrison had been “dipping its toe in the autocracy pool.”
Morrison said he thought his office had told former Finance Minister Simon Birmingham that the prime minister had also taken on the finance portfolio. Birmingham had not been informed.
“I acknowledge that non-disclosure of arrangements has caused unintentional offense and extend an apology to those who were offended,” Morrison said.
“I do not apologize for taking action, especially prudent redundancy (of ministerial powers) action, in a national crisis in order to save lives and to save livelihoods,” he added.
Morrison rated standing up to China among his greatest achievements while in office from August 2018 until May this year.
“We stood up to a bullying Chinese regime who sought to coerce and impose itself on our democracy through threats, sanctions and intimidation,” Morrison said.
Australia’s troubled relationship with China is showing signs of improving under the Labor government.
Morrison’s successor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese this month held Australia's first official bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping since Morrison’s predecessor Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2016.
In calling for Morrison’s censure, Albanese said the former prime minister had demonstrated hubris, arrogance and denial but no contrition.
"He owes an apology to the Australian people for the undermining of democracy, and that’s why this motion should be supported by every member of this House," Albanese said.
Morrison is the first lawmaker to be censured by the Parliament since former conservative minister Bruce Billson in 2018. Billson was unanimously censured for failing to declare he was receiving a private-sector salary before he retired from Parliament.