Former prime minister Scott Morrison has hit back at the parliamentary censure motion condemning his secret ministerial grab.
In a lengthy speech in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, Mr Morrison defended his government’s record, and his as PM, after Leader of the House Tony Burke introduced the censure motion.
“I am proud of my achievements, I am proud of my government. At a time of extreme trial, my government stood up and faced the abyss of uncertainty we looked into, the coercion of a regional bully, and saw Australia through the storm,” he said.
“I have no intention now of submitting to the political intimidation of this government, using its numbers in this place to impose its retribution on a political opponent.”
Mr Morrison repeated his defence that he only used his secret ministerial powers once (to reject a petroleum mining bid known as PEP-11 in the resources portfolio).
“The authority was lawfully sought and exercised on a specific matter solely. I considered it unnecessary to dismiss the minister to deal with this matter, as he was doing a fine job … I believe the decision I made on PEP-11 was the correct one,” he said.
Mr Morrison appointed himself minister of health, finance, industry, science, energy and resources, treasury and home affairs between 2020 and 2021, without the knowledge of most of his Coalition colleagues. He also eyed off a sixth portfolio – agriculture, water and the environment – but did not go through with it.
“It is strange to describe such actions as a power grab, as they were never exercised or even used to exercise influence over the relevant ministers,” Mr Morrison said.
“They were simply a dormant redundancy.”
Mr Morrison defended his actions as being taken during an “extremely challenging period”.
“I acknowledge that non-disclosure of arrangements has caused unintentional offence and extend an apology to those who were offended, but I do not apologise for taking action, especially prudent redundancy action, in a national crisis in order to save lives and to save livelihoods,” he said.
The House has not yet voted on the motion. But, with Labor holding a majority, it is certain to pass. At least one Liberal MP, Bridget Archer, plans to vote with the Albanese government.
Censure motions do not have any legal consequences, but they are rare and give parliamentarians the chance to formally disapprove of their colleagues.
The government has agreed to implement all six recommendations from former High Court judge Virginia Bell’s report into Mr Morrison’s conduct, to improve the transparency of ministerial appointments.
Wednesday was the first time the House had moved to censure a former prime minister. Mr Burke said while censures were rare, they had their place.
“The court is the place to determine whether or not something was lawful, but in the parliament we determine whether or not something was appropriate,” he said.
“This is not some small matter. It goes to the absolute core of the principle of responsible government.”
Mr Burke said Mr Morrison had undermined, rejected, attacked and abused the standards expected of parliamentarians.
He said the former Coalition government had attacked conventions and enabled the behaviour of Mr Morrison.
“This place runs on rules and conventions … the concept that the parliament knows who has which job is essential to responsible government,” Mr Burke said.
“You cannot have responsible government if you do not know what people are responsible for. And for two years we did not know.”
He said Mr Morrison’s conduct prevented the House of Representatives from doing its job and it was “so completely unacceptable”.
Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth said while parliament was set to introduce legislation following the recommendations in the Bell report, a censure remained still necessary.
“These are really serious allegations and the parliament has the right to debate them, to discuss them, and to vote on these actions,” she told ABC TV on Wednesday.
“It is entirely appropriate that the parliament has a say, it is the heart of democracy in Australia.”
Ms Bell’s report found the secrecy surrounding the appointments was corrosive of trust in government and undermined public confidence in government.
Law changes to improve transparency are expected to get the Coalition’s backing.
The last MP to be censured was Liberal MP Bruce Billson in 2018 for not declaring payments while he was still in parliament.