By Shaimaa Khalil-BBC News, Sydney
https://www.bbc.com-Image source, Getty Images
Scott Morrison (R) and Greg Hunt (L) in February 2021 – not one but two health ministers
I remember watching Scott Morrison alongside Greg Hunt for Covid press briefings at the height of the pandemic.
Little did I, the rest of the media, or the public know that we were in fact hearing from two health ministers – one of them sworn in secretly, who also happened to be prime minister at the time.
Now we do know that, and more.
Under the radar, Mr Morrison had in fact appointed himself to five ministerial roles in addition to his leadership position.
It has been an extraordinary week in Australian politics – and it has left even constitutional experts scratching their heads.
“It’s just weird,” current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said, which frankly was what everyone was thinking.
The facts are that between March 2020 and May 2021 Mr Morrison essentially centralised power by also becoming Australia’s minister of health, finance, resources, home affairs and the treasury.
The revelations have unleashed a torrent of mockery, with the hashtag #MinisterforEverything trending and the ex-PM being dubbed “Side Hustle Scotty” by satirical online publication the Betoota Advocate.
“We’ve all worked with those people. Haven’t we? Those people who can’t do their own job but still reckon they know best how to do everyone else’s,” tweeted writer Jane Caro.
But in all seriousness, the combination of secrecy and centralisation of power is what you might expect in a dictatorship rather than a modern democracy.
How did he manage to follow due process while also giving himself all these roles?
Initially there were inconsistent stories about an “administrative loophole”.
Governor-General David Hurley – the Queen’s representative in Australia – confirmed he had signed an “administrative instrument” that had allowed Mr Morrison to secretly take on the extra portfolios. It was “consistent with section 64 of the constitution”, a spokesperson said.
So it may not have been illegal but details about the “administrative instrument” – and one that allowed a leader to assume secret powers – remain scant.
Ex-home affairs minister Karen Andrews, who said she had “absolutely no knowledge” she shared her portfolio with Mr Morrison, called on him to resign from the Liberal party. He has since apologised to her.
Ex-treasurer Josh Frydenberg also discovered on Tuesday that Mr Morrison had secretly assumed his portfolio and is said to be “deeply disappointed”.
Current PM Anthony Albanese from the Labor party accused Mr Morrison of an “unprecedented trashing of our democracy”.
And so to the man himself. Would he resign as an MP or ScoMo his way out?
Mr Morrison wrote a long Facebook post on Tuesday explaining his position. On Wednesday he turned it into a bravura media performance.
Not only did he double down on his stance, he also praised his pandemic leadership.
“No PM had faced the same circumstances as me,” he said.
These were unprecedented times and they required extraordinary measures, he explained, adding that he had not used the powers he granted himself.
“There was a clear expectation established in the public’s mind, certainly in the media’s mind, and absolutely in the mind of the opposition… that I, as Prime Minister, was responsible pretty much for every single thing that was going on,” Mr Morrison said.
But then why the secrecy? Why not inform those whose portfolios he was sharing?
“I didn’t think it was a matter to be raised,” he said, adding that he wanted them to go about their day “normally”.
But this did not explain why it should be down to him to take on these key portfolios. Yes, the public expected him to lead, but it’s fair to say they did not expect him to do everyone else’s job as well.
And what did the pandemic have to do with Mr Morrison taking over the ministry of environment, science and resources?
That allowed him to block a gas exploration project on the New South Wales coast, overriding the then resources minister Keith Pitt.
Mr Morrison said this was him “acting in the national interest to save the environment”.
One journalist pointed out how puzzling all of this was – but Mr Morrison shot back that the reporter had not been in his shoes.
“You are standing on the shore after the fact, I was steering the ship in the middle of the tempest,” he berated the assembled press.
That was the gist of most of his answers.
Sydney Morning Herald columnist Michael Koziol observed that the ex-PM had seen himself as “captain of Australia. And the first mate. And the engineer. And the deckhand”.
Naval allusions aside, this bizarre affair is about the integrity of a government and how it’s run.
There are glaring issues about the manner in which Mr Morrison conducted himself – lack of transparency being the biggest concern. And the lack of clarity and consistency.
Some members of the cabinet knew, others didn’t. He said he didn’t do anything wrong but he still chose to keep the appointments secret.
He insisted that the Australian public wouldn’t care about this but clearly many do.
PM Albanese is seeking legal advice about next steps and there have been calls for a royal commission to get to the bottom of what happened.
Side-hustle Scotty’s political career has survived another day. It’s not clear, however, if his image and reputation will.