Anthony Albanese flagged at the weekend he was open to calling an inquiry into the ramifications of Scott Morrison’s power grab, as Barnaby Joyce revealed he feared retribution if he crossed Morrison for overruling a Nationals minister.
Albanese on Monday will release the solicitor-general’s advice on the affair, as the controversy around Morrison’s extraordinary action in wading into multiple portfolios without informing his cabinet runs into its second week.
Asked on Sky whether he would call an inquiry even if (as expected) the solicitor-general found Morrison acted legally, Albanese said, “very clearly there’s a need for proper scrutiny of what occurred here. This was an undermining of our parliamentary democracy.”
He said that separately from the legal side there were questions of whether conventions had been overturned and whether reforms were needed so this could never happen again.
“We’ll examine all of those issues after we receive the solicitor-general’s advice.”
Joyce, interviewed on the ABC, gave a confused account of what he knew and when. He was deputy prime minister when Morrison overruled Nationals resources minister Keith Pitt over the PEP-11 gas exploration off the NSW coast.
Morrison decided to rule out exploration for political reasons, while Pitt, who as minister had the formal decision-making power, had an opposite view. Morrison had ensured he could get his way by becoming resources minister.
Joyce told the ABC he became aware “obliquely” that Morrison had the power to decide the PEP-11 matter.
During discussions on PEP-11 “it became more apparent that the prime minister had greater powers than I initially assumed,” Joyce said.
Joyce said if he had resisted Morrison’s action, the Nationals could have lost the extra ministry place he had obtained for them. As well as the extra spot Joyce said he had negotiated another person on cabinet’s expenditure review committee, and extra staff. And there were billions of dollars for regional areas, as part of the deal Joyce struck for the Nationals signing up to the net zero by 2050 commitment.
“I thought I would ask myself three questions [about Morrison moving into resources]. Is it legal? Under section 64 [of the constitution] he can do that.
"Is there anything I can do to change it back? No.
"Has he got the capacity to re-negotiate my extra minister that I had just dealt into the National party hand? Yes, he could say, ‘Yeah. I will fix your problem, mate. I will take the ministry back off you. Problem fixed for you’. Problem fixed for me. Bad outcome for the National party.”
Joyce said he couldn’t remember exactly when Morrison had told him he could overrule Pitt. Morrison had made himself resources minister in April 2021, while Michael McCormack was still Nationals leader, and Joyce did not know of the arrangement when he ousted McCormack.
UPDATE, Monday: Albanese to release advice on Tuesday
Albanese said he would release the solicitor-general’s advice on Tuesday. He told a Monday news conference the advice had been received and he would be briefed on it by his departmental head, Glyn Davis, during the afternoon. He said it would go to cabinet on Tuesday.