Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison installed himself in five portfolios - including treasury - just days before the May 2021 budget.
Anthony Albanese gave details of his predecessor's extraordinary actions at a Tuesday morning news conference. The prime minister said he had sought advice from the solicitor-general on the legality of what had happened, which he would receive on Monday.
"I am seeking further advice as to the use of these extraordinary powers by Scott Morrison."
Morrison became health minister on March 14 2020, finance minister on March 30, 2020, home affairs minister and treasurer on May 6 2021, and minister for industry, science, energy and resources on April 15 2021.
Josh Frydenberg, who was treasurer and deputy Liberal leader, didn't know Morrison had moved into his portfolio. He delivered the 2021 budget on May 11.
Liberal frontbencher calls for Morrison's resignation from Parliament
Karen Andrews, who was home affairs minister, said she had not known of the pairing arrangement and called for Morrison to resign from parliament.
"I had absolutely no knowledge and was not told by the PM, PMO nor the department secretary. This undermines the integrity of government," she told The Australian.
Departmental secretary Mike Pezzullo did not know of the arrangement.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton refused to back Andrews' call for Morrison's resignation.
Morrison, who refused to comment on Monday, went on 2GB to defend himself on Tuesday morning.
"They were very unconventional times," he said. Ministers, including Dutton, had gone down with COVID. "We had Boris Johnson, who almost died one night, I remember that night very vividly. I was very concerned he wouldn't be with us in the morning."
Speaking before Albanese's news conference, Morrison was asked whether he had assumed any control of any other portfolios beyond health, finance and resources (those initially revealed).
"Not to my recollection," he said. "I'm pursuing that, but not to my recollection. There were a number that were considered at the time for safeguard reasons. But I don't recall any others being actioned."
He said he had apologised to Mathias Cormann, now secretary-general of the OECD, for not informing him of the arrangement. "I thought that had been done through offices to be honest, [...] that was an oversight."
Morrison admitted that becoming resources minister had nothing to do with the pandemic. He and resources minister Keith Pitt had opposing views on the PEP11 gas exploration off the NSW coast, with Morrison determined to veto it for political reasons. The decision-making power rested with the resources minister.
"If I wished to be the decision maker, then I had to take the steps that I took. And then I had to follow a very meticulous process in informing myself about the issue, taking briefs on the issue, and then making a decision in accordance with all the legal requirements, which I did.
"And when I put myself in a position to take that decision, I informed Keith at that point. And then as a result, I went forward and made that decision."
Albanese sought to spread blame to Morrison's colleagues.
"What has occurred here is also a flow-on, I believe, from the fact that Mr Morrison's colleagues sat back and watched power be centralised within the Morrison government. They ticked off on the arrangements that had Scott Morrison as the only member of a cabinet committee."
Dutton said Albanese's seeking advice from the solicitor-general was appropriate.
"It's time for cool heads to prevail," Dutton told a news conference. "The Prime Minister has come out of his holidays swinging. Obviously this is an issue that will get his teeth into." But Australian families were dealing with bigger issues, Dutton said.
Morrison's Facebook explanation
Morrison has posted a long Facebook explanation of his actions. Extracts are below:
"As Prime Minister I considered it necessary to put in place safeguards, redundancies and contingencies to ensure the continuity and effective operation of Government during this crisis period, which extended for the full period of my term.
"I took the precaution of being given authority to administer various departments of state should the need arise due to incapacity of a Minister or in the national interest. This was done in relation to departments where Ministers were vested with specific powers under their legislation that were not subject to oversight by Cabinet, including significant financial authorities.
"Given the significant nature of many of these powers I considered this to be a prudent and responsible action as Prime Minister.
"It is not uncommon for multiple Ministers to be sworn to administer the same Department. However, given that such additional Ministers were in a more junior position in the relevant Departments, and would not be familiar with all the details of the pandemic response, I considered it appropriate that the redundancy be put in place at a higher level within the Government and not at a more junior level.
"The major Department for which this was considered was the Health Department, given the extensive powers afforded to the Minister by the Biosecurity Act.
"As an added administrative precaution, as a 'belts and braces' approach, the Departments of Treasury and Home Affairs were added some time after in May 2021.
"As events demonstrated with the resurgence of COVID-19 in the second half of 2021, we could never take certainty for granted. In hindsight these arrangements were unnecessary and until seeking advice from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet today, I had not recollected these arrangements having been put in place. There was a lot going on at the time.
"Thankfully it was not necessary for me to trigger use of any of these powers. In the event that I would have to use such powers I would have done so disclosing the authority by which I was making such decisions. The authority was pre approved to ensure there would be no delay in being able to make decisions or take actions should the need arise.
"The crisis was a highly dynamic environment and it was important to plan ahead and take what precautions could lawfully be put in place to ensure I could act, as Prime Minister, if needed.
It is important to note that throughout this time Ministers in all Departments, where I was provided with authority to act, exercised full control of their Departments and portfolios without intervention. Ministerial briefs were not copied to me as Prime Minister in a co-Minister capacity, as this was not the nature of the arrangement. These arrangements were there as a 'break glass in case of emergency' safeguard.
"The use of the powers by a Prime Minister to exercise authority to administer Departments has clearly caused concern. I regret this, but acted in good faith in a crisis.
"I used such powers on one occasion only. I did not seek to interfere with Ministers in the conduct of their portfolio as there were no circumstances that warranted their use, except in the case of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources [when he vetoed offshore gas exploration off the NSW coast].
"I have endeavoured to set out the context and reasoning for the decisions I took as Prime Minister in a highly unusual time. I did so in good faith, seeking to exercise my responsibilities as Prime Minister which exceeded those of any other member of the Government, or Parliament. For any offence to my colleagues I apologise."
Author: Michelle Grattan - Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra