Over the past few days excerpts from Simon Benson’s and Geoff Chambers’ new book, Plagued, have appeared in the media. (Admission: I have only read the first excerpt, which appeared in the Weekend Australian, but since then through the media more details have emerged.)
What initially struck me about this first report was the reason given for the addition of the health portfolio to Scott Morrison’s then prime ministerial responsibilities, and the level of power, (and therefore risk to the nation), that section 475 of the Biosecurity Act could afford to the Federal Health Minister if invoked by the Governor General, (*though with the subsequent disclosures today in the press this aspect of what was going on in the previous government during the pandemic is being overtaken by events, but I will plug on).
Reported in the excerpt is that the first aspect to the change to the ministerial responsibilities of Scott Morrison as prime minister arises because the Victorian president of the Australian Medical Association, Julian Rait, advised Minister Hunt that,
Hunt and the other political leaders of the day needed to draw some crucial lessons from the 1919 pandemic. Chief among them was how federalism almost collapsed when the politicians let themselves believe they were medical experts. They needed a mechanism that put the expert health advice at the apex of political decision making, along with a unified national approach from all levels of government. Hunt swiftly relayed Rait’s observations to Scott Morrison.
The second aspect to the change to Scott Morrison’s ministerial responsibilities arises the authors tell us because,
A declaration under section 475 gave Hunt as health minister exclusive and extraordinary powers. He, and only he, could personally make directives that overrode any other law and were not disallowable by parliament. He had authority to direct any citizen in the country to do something, or not do something, to prevent spread of the disease. Morrison knew that if he asked the Governor-General to invoke section 475, he effectively would be handing Hunt control of the country. If they were going to use them, Morrison wanted protocols set up as well as a formal process to impose constraints. The protocols required the minister to provide written medical advice and advance notice of his intentions to the national security cabinet.
Revealed, is that the Federal Government did indeed have extraordinary powers to control, direct or constrain what the state premiers were doing during the pandemic if s. 475 was invoked. And with the addition of protocols to provide written medical advice and to provide advance notice of the Federal Health Minister’s intentions to the national security cabinet, the control and direction during the pandemic did have the prime minister at the centre of that decision-making and far enough in front to be well beyond the premiers’ preview. Conversely, if s. 475 was not invoked, then why take this course of action?
But this revelation of the question of using s. 475 is at odds with what Morrison said at his February 1, 2022, National Press Club Address, and which I wrote about and quoted from on NewCat on February 5:
There, Morrison said:
‘The pandemic did not suspend the constitution or the federation. It did not change what the States and the Commonwealth have always been responsible for: they didn’t get any more powers they didn’t get any less; and I have always sought to put the national interest first by seeking to work together with the Premiers and the Chief Ministers through the National Cabinet and not engage in petty fights…my job was keep everybody together in the room working together…and I have sought to work together…’
When Scott Morrison made those remarks at the National Press Club on February 1, 2022, those words were not correct. S.475 did materially alter what the Commonwealth and the States were doing – and could do – during the two and half years of the pandemic and without the constraint of the constitution or the federation. Through the position of (“shadow”) Federal Health Minister and the powers of s. 475, to allow or disallow the state governments’ blanket vaccine mandates, police powers abuse, and the banning of healthy people from earning a living were entirely within his control.
(*The revelation today that using the same administrative instrument that circumvented the requirement to be sworn in by the Governor General, Scott Morrison also became the Finance Minister alongside Matthias Cormann and, later, Energy Minister alongside Angus Taylor and Resources Minister alongside Keith Pitt, and without the knowledge of these ministers, or seemingly the remainder of the Cabinet, the Coalition, the Parliament or the people.)