Scott Morrison’s former assistant minister, Ben Morton, was appointed to administer the home affairs department in March 2021, in a move not publicly disclosed at the time in official ministry lists or a swearing-in ceremony.
Morton’s previously unknown appointment by governor general David Hurley to administer the home affairs department is detailed in documents published this week under freedom of information laws. The Guardian understands it was an arrangement not known to the then home affairs minister, Karen Andrews.
The governor general’s official secretary noted “The Hon Ben Morton MP to administer the Department of Home Affairs” in a notice on the government gazette at the time.
Morton’s appointment came two months before Morrison’s controversial decision to appoint himself to administer the home affairs portfolio, among four other undisclosed appointments.
Peter Rush, assistant secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, wrote to Hurley’s official secretary, Paul Singer, on 11 March 2021, newly published documents reveal.
“The PM has asked Assistant Minister Morton to have oversight of the Global Talents Taskforce, located in the Department of Home Affairs,” Rush wrote, referring to an international talent attraction taskforce under the former government’s JobMaker plan.
“This would require Mr Morton being sworn to administer the Dept of Home Affairs.”
Singer replied the next day: “This will be fine”.
In a letter to Hurley on 30 March, Morrison wrote that he recommended Morton and another government member, whose name was redacted from the documents, be appointed to “administer an additional department each”.
“As these changes are of an administrative nature only, Mr Morton [and the redacted MP] will not be participating in the swearing-in ceremony,” Morrison wrote.
The documents include an instrument, signed by Hurley and Morrison, stating: “I David John Hurley … hereby appoint Ben Morton, a member of the federal executive, to administer the Department of Home Affairs.”
In a briefing note to Morrison, his department said it had produced documents to enable Morton to “administer the Global Business and Talent Attraction Taskforce within the Department of Home Affairs, which you have previously agreed on 9 March 2021”.
It’s understood Morton was assigned to the taskforce as it related to his responsibility over the government’s deregulation agenda, which he spoke about in public speeches. The Guardian also understands that he did not receive departmental briefs or make ministerial decisions in home affairs.
In the note, Morrison’s department recommended he advise Hurley that Morton and the other redacted member did not need to be formally sworn in, because their titles would not change “as a result of the minor administrative changes being made to their responsibilities”, the documents show.
Andrews was appointed home affairs minister on 30 March 2021 – the exact same day Morton was also appointed to administer that department.
Guardian Australia understands Andrews was not aware of Morton’s appointment to home affairs. Morton’s appointment was not listed on a revised government ministry list issued on 30 March 2021.
Morton declined to comment.
Peter Dutton, the opposition leader, was home affairs minister until 30 March 2021. Dutton was also approached for comment.
A spokesperson for Morrison explained the move by noting the difference between being sworn to administer a department, and being sworn in as minister.
“Ministers are often sworn to administer departments to fulfil their portfolio responsibilities,” Morrison’s spokesperson said.
“The Global Talent Taskforce dealt with whole of government issues and to administer this tasking effectively Mr Morton had to administer responsibilities relating to the home affairs department.
“There is a difference between being sworn to administer the Department and being sworn to hold the office of minister for a department. They are not the same thing.”
The Global Business and Talent Attraction Taskforce, according to a press release issued in March 2020 by the then acting minister for immigration and citizenship, Alan Tudge, was created to “turbo-charge the creation of jobs by boosting our efforts to attract high value global business and exceptional talent”.
“International businesses will be lured to Australia and exceptional talent will be encouraged to call Australia home under a new initiative to support the post-COVID recovery and boost local jobs … as part of the Government’s JobMaker plan,” Tudge wrote.
Morton does not appear to have issued press releases or public statements regarding his stewardship of the taskforce.
The FOI documents were posted to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s website this week, following a freedom of information request – by persons unknown – to the department for documents relating to Morton’s appointment to other portfolios.
Morton, a former director of the Western Australian Liberal party, served as minister for the public service and special minister of state from October 2021 until his election defeat in May 2022. At the time of his appointment to administer Home Affairs, he was also assistant minister to the prime minister and cabinet, and one of Morrison’s closest allies.
Morrison was censured in parliament in November 2022 after it was revealed he secretly appointed himself to administer the departments of health, finance, treasury, industry and home affairs between 2020 and 2021. Andrews, who was home affairs minister at the time Morrison appointed himself to that portfolio, called on him to resign from parliament.
Following an inquiry into Morrison’s multiple ministries, former high court justice Virginia Bell recommended all future appointments be publicly disclosed, including by the prime minister’s department, on the government gazette and by each department.
This story was updated on 16 March, 2023, to add that Ben Morton’s appointment to administer the Department of Home Affairs was noted in the government gazette.