An ally of Scott Morrison was quietly appointed to administer the Department of Home Affairs before the then-prime minister had himself secretly appointed to the same portfolio.
Documents released under Freedom of Information laws show Ben Morton, a former assistant minister to Mr Morrison, was sworn in to oversee the department in March 2021.
In a letter to Governor-General David Hurley, the former prime minister asked for Mr Morton and another MP – whose name was redacted – to be sworn in “so that they can administer an additional department each”.
An earlier email from Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet assistant secretary Peter Rush said Mr Morrison wanted Mr Morton to have oversight of the “global talents workforce” within the department.
“This would require Mr Morton being sworn to administer the Dept of Home Affairs,” he wrote to Governor-General David Hurley’s secretary Paul Singer.
Mr Morton served as assistant minister to the prime minister and cabinet under Mr Morrison.
The Guardian reported that Mr Morton was not believed to have received home affairs departmental briefs or made ministerial decisions, however the appointment was made without the knowledge of new home affairs minister Karen Andrews.
A spokesman for the former prime minister said there was a difference between being sworn in to administer a department and being sworn in as a minister.
“The global talent taskforce dealt with whole-of-government issues and to administer this tasking effectively Mr Morton had to administer responsibilities relating to the home affairs department,” the spokesman told the news outlet.
However, Mr Morton’s appointment was not publicly disclosed at the time or in any subsequent announcements.
Mr Morrison controversially had himself secretly sworn in to several ministries during the COVID-19 pandemic period, beginning with the health portfolio in March 2020.
He was sworn in to oversee the Department of Home Affairs in May 2021, after Mr Morton’s appointment.
A report by former high court justice Virginia Bell found the appointments were unnecessary, irregular and likely to erode public trust in government due to the secrecy involved.
She made a series of recommendations, including that all future ministerial appointments be publicly disclosed by departments and in the government gazette.
In November, Mr Morrison became the first former prime minister to be formally censured by parliament over the secret appointments.
He has defended his secret ministerial appointments as providing necessary safeguards during the peak of the pandemic.
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