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Morrison’s legacy lives on as second secret MP named

One of Scott Morrison's closest friends, Ben Morton, was given secret ministerial powers.

One of Scott Morrison's closest friends, Ben Morton, was given secret ministerial powers. Photo: AAP/TND

Six months after it broke, the story of Scott Morrison’s secret assumption of the powers to run much of the Australian government continues to surprise – even the most senior members of his cabinet.

Former Coalition minister Karen Andrews’ unconcealed fury after learning that she had unknowingly shared her ministerial responsibilities with former PM Morrison might have been the only relatable moment in a weird saga.

On Thursday, she took news of another past secret intrusion pretty much in her stride – but said Canberra’s culture of confidentiality continued to threaten democracy long after Mr Morrison lost power.

Case closed?

Documents released under freedom-of-information laws on Thursday revealed that one of Mr Morrison’s closest friends, Ben Morton, was quietly given the same legal powers as Ms Andrews shortly before her appointment as home affairs minister began.

Only Ms Andrews’ appointment was publicised and she never knew Mr Morton had powers over her portfolio.

“Given what we’ve heard it’s not surprising that I wasn’t told. But it’s not OK to behave in [this] way,” she said.

Also on Thursday, The Guardian revealed that Nationals MP Michelle Landry was appointed to administer the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in 2021 at the same time and in the same manner as Mr Morton.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese played the political advantage when the story of Mr Morrison’s secret ministries broke late last year and he called an inquiry into only Mr Morrison’s appointments and passed simple changes to stop similar secrecy ever taking hold in future.

But new documents about Ms Andrews and the home affairs portfolio show much of the recent past remains opaque.

Even after a freedom-of-information release of information about cabinet appointments, the names of ministers, details and large slabs of text are redacted, while they were absolutely not covered by the inquiry.

Public faith in government transparency was being tested again, Ms Andrews said, and that was a problem for Mr Albanese.

‘Bizarre’

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull told TND that information about ministerial appointments remained substandard after the Morrison secrecy scandal.

“The only way to close this bizarre chapter of secret government is by letting the sunlight in,” he said.

The New Daily asked the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which houses all records about cabinet government, for a complete list of all people who had been sworn in as Morrison government ministers.

The department missed a Thursday night deadline and, despite undertaking three times to provide the information, it is still yet to do so.

Mr Morton’s appointment in home affairs, unlike some of Mr Morrison’s, was listed in the government gazette. But he never appeared as home affairs minister in a list of cabinet appointments.

“Why don’t they make that information public?” Ms Andrews said.

“Why did Ben Morton never raise that. Why did Scott Morrison never raise that with me? It just makes absolutely no sense. There was no reason to keep that secret.”

Similarly, Ms Landry’s appointment as assistant minister for children and families and assistant minister for northern Australia was in the public ministry list on March 30, 2021. But she was not listed among ministers in the prime minister and cabinet portfolio.

Three’s a crowd

Mr Morton and Ms Andrews took on the home affairs responsibilities on March 30, 2021. Only she was sworn in with a public ceremony.

On the same day, Peter Dutton resigned as home affairs minister and moved to the defence portfolio.

Asked if he knew that two people had replaced him and for a response, Mr Dutton said: “No and no”.

A couple of months on, in May, Mr Morrison quietly made himself home affairs minister, his fifth covert cabinet role.

Mr Morton, a former bus driver on the NSW Central Coast, moved into the portfolio, bureaucrats were told, to take charge of a visa program for “attracting global talent” pithily dubbed a brain gain.

“I thought it was quite silly,” immigration expert Abul Rizvi said.

Mr Morton being secretly sworn into home affairs did not make it easier for him to run the visa program. But, Dr Rizvi noted, it did come with ministerial powers to cancel and grant visas directly.

Subjective, weak

The global talent visa fell up to halfway short of an aim of bringing 5000 internationally significant people to Australia.

“The individual had to be nominated by a national body [that] was very vaguely defined,” Dr Rizvi said.

“The person had to have an international reputation that was also very vaguely defined. It was a disaster.

“The legal requirements are so subjective, and so weak [which makes] the risk of corruption is enormous.”

Promises of top talent being drawn in by a global network that operated like undercover agents proved overblown and the scheme was mostly used by students already living in Australia and not members of the global elite.

Former High Court justice Virginia Bell examined the secret ministries for the Albanese government. She concluded that Mr Morrison was driven by a desire to exercise certain legal powers, even though he only did so once over gas exploration.

Justice Bell said Mr Morrison’s actions were “corrosive” of public faith in institutions and found his explanations, offered through lawyers, “hard to reconcile”.

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