Secrecy has shrouded Scott Morrison’s National Cabinet. In an epic transparency battle, Rex Patrick has finally managed to blow open the vault, forcing the Government to hand over the agenda and minutes of the first 20 meetings of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s National Cabinet, from 15 March to 29 May 2020.
MWM brings you the documents, providing a unique insight into national policy making in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Morrison’s unhelpful secrecy instincts on full display
The first sentence ever written in a National Cabinet refers to the terms of reference for the body which called on “All proceedings and documentation of the National Cabinet will remain strictly confidential”. The National Cabinet was to be constituted as a Committee of the Federal Cabinet.
As we responded to a national emergency, where extraordinary restraints on the liberty of Australians were imposed, and vast amounts of public money spent, Scott Morrison wanted there to be complete secrecy.
The second sentence wrapped the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), the grouping of Australia’s top health officials, in a cabinet secrecy blanket too. A committee that had no ministers was to be given “Cabinet’ status. The key decision-making committee for health emergencies was to meet and make recommendations in total secrecy.
The transparency fight
Just as Morrison’s addiction to secrecy came into play, so too did my addiction to transparency. In July 2020 I decided to crack the vault. I FOI’ed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for access to the minutes of a single National Cabinet meeting, challenging the Prime Minister’s claim that the National Cabinet was legally a Cabinet.
In true Morrison style, the PM dug his heels in and the matter went all the way to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal where, in August 2021, Federal Court Justice White ruled that the National Cabinet was not a Cabinet and the minutes I sought had to be released to me.
Having established the precedent I then asked, across two FOI requests, for the agendas and minutes of the first 20 meetings. What shocked me was that, whilst the PM had not appealed Justice White’s decision, his department refused to follow the precedent set by a Federal Court Justice.
Scott Morrison wasn’t about to let the rule of law get in the way of his secrecy obsession.
That led to a second battle in the AAT, with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet holding ground until the day before the first hearing, when it capitulated. On Monday, a year and half after making the subsequent FOI request, the Tribunal ordered the National Cabinet documents be handed over.
And so here they are.
The first ten Meetings
The first National Cabinet meeting closed on 15 March 2020 with a volley of restrictions; self-isolation for incoming passengers, a ban on cruise ship arrivals (four days later a super spreader event occurred after passengers of the ‘Ruby Princess’ were allowed to disembark in Sydney – it slipped through the net because the ship was on its way back to Australia before the ban was announced), social distancing was to be embraced and gatherings of 500 people or more were to be banned.
Over the next month a biosecurity emergency was to be declared, particular attention was to be paid to aged care facilities and schools (which were to remain open), travel overseas was to be banned, ANZAC Day was to be cancelled, gatherings were to be severely curtailed and eventually suspended, overseas arrivals were to be sent to designated facilities (predominantly hotels) for isolation, exports of sanitary and medical products were to banned, Intensive Care Units (ICUs) were to be reconfigured while elective and semi-urgent surgery was to be stopped. A program of COVID testing was established and “flattening the [epidemiology) curve” was the order of the day.
The ADF was partially mobilised to respond to the Pandemic.
A raft of economic measure was also proposed; JobKeeper was proposed, mental health and domestic violence funding was increased, child care support packages were put in place, “eviction moratoriums” and “hurt sharing” commercial and residential arrangement were proposed wile measures to keep trucks running across the country were adopted.
A lot of work was done.
National Cabinet Minutes – 20.3.2020 – 3.4.2020
The second ten meetings
From 17 April the work continued.
Masks and PPE usage received new attention, home isolation came about and the debate on school closures enlivened. Some restrictions were eased and some surgeries was reinstated while ICU ‘heat maps’ became a thing.
Easter was effectively cancelled.
Australia’s worst ever phone app, COVIDSafe, was born. The PM (and Minister Stuart Roberts) moved from watching Twitter ‘likes’ to watching download numbers.
The global financial situation came to the fore, hardship provisions were developed for energy, water and rates and COVID-19 Doherty institute modelling was considered (and published). Virgin Airlines’ viability came under threat and fuel security was discussed. The Government started to look at what to do to restart the country, with an initial focus on small infrastructure projects and how to reboot sport in a COVID-19 environment. Early access to superannuation was considered. The idea of a Trans-Tasman COVID-safe travel zone was floated.
The future role of the National Cabinet was also considered; not thoughts of disbanding it, but expanding its subcommittees to douse more of government policy making – federal and state – in secrecy.
National Cabinet Minutes – 7.4.2020 – 29.5.2020
An examination of the agenda and minutes shows nothing … nothing … that warranted any withholding of National Cabinet information.
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has abandoned protecting the work of the National Cabinet under Morrison. This should enable the work of the AHPPC and the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) to be closely examined.
Prime Minister Albanese has also resisted disclosing the minutes of the National Cabinet under his reign. Scott Morrison’s disease has spread. That matter is in the AAT now and I’m hopeful that Anthony Albanese can see the folly in keeping his meetings secret. We’ll have more to say on this in the coming weeks as the matter comes to a head at the Tribunal.
Photo above: Scott Morrison. Image: AAP
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