While the media is flaying the political corpse of Scott Morrison, quite deservedly over the former prime minister’s secret power grab, the new government has quietly stripped Australians of their 40-year right of access to government forums. Transparency warrior Rex Patrick is fighting it.
The Commonwealth Freedom of Information (FOI) Act first came into force in December 1982. Since then, Australians have had a legally enforceable right-of-access to the submissions and minutes of inter-governmental meetings; at least they did, until last week.
As everyone’s attention was focused on the secret self-ministerial-appointments of former Prime Minister Morrison, the current Prime Minister was quietly engaging in a secrecy manoeuvre straight out of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s ‘Handbook of Government Transparency’.
Last week Anthony Albanese stripped Australians of their 40 year right-of-access to information related to inter-governmental forums.
While complaining about Morrison throwing rocks through the panes of the old Government’s transparency glasshouse, Albanese was throwing a few rocks through the panes of his own Government’s transparency commitments.
Morrison’s Faux Cabinet
Through a combination of affidavits filed in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal by senior Prime Minister & Cabinet officials and from revelations in the recently released book, Plagued, we know Morrison decided that there would be a National Cabinet on the day National Cabinet was established, 13 March 2020. He made the decision off-the-cuff halfway through the Council of Australian Government (COAG) gathering being held that day.
That evening his Chief of Staff, John Kunkel, advised his Cabinet Secretary, Andrew Shearer, that the meeting of COAG had “decided to set up a national cabinet”. “What’s that?”, Shearer asked. “That’s your problem now,” Kunkel responded.
In the days that followed, a secrecy blanket was wrapped over the National Cabinet by designating it a Committee of the Federal Cabinet. Remarkably this was claimed to be so when only one member, the Prime Minister, was a Federal Minister.
Of course, we now know that National Cabinet isn’t a Committee of the Federal Cabinet and isn’t entitled to blanket secrecy. We know because the highly respected Federal Court Justice, Richard White, determined it wasn’t.
Albanese’s National Cabinet
Jump forward to 17 June this year when Albanese’s first National Cabinet met.
Under the Albanese Government, National Cabinet does not operate as a committee of the Federal Cabinet, rather it’s been determined a ‘critical inter-governmental forum’.
Having a keen interest in government transparency, I thought I’d test just how transparent the new arrangement might be. However, when I requested under FOI to see the minutes of the first meeting, I was refused access for the following reason.
As recognised in the 17 September 2021 Statement from the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers on “The Importance of Confidentiality to Relationships between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories”, confidentiality of information and decision-making has been invaluable to the National Cabinet. The sharing of sensitive information and judgments in a forum that provides the ability for confidential discussions has been of great significance to effective decision making by the States, Territories, and the Commonwealth in the public interest throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Prime Minister’s department went on to say.
Releasing documents or information derived from the National Cabinet has the potential to erode the principles of trust, confidence and collaboration which underpin this confidential forum. Disclosure would have an inhibiting effect on the open flow of information between members of the National Cabinet.
There you have it. In a world where ‘trust’ and ‘confidence’ doesn’t fit well into a sentence about a group of politicians, Albanese has tried to do so. You and I aren’t entitled to see the analysis upon which National Cabinet purportedly bases its important decisions, nor the decisions themselves – because the National Cabinet membership want secrecy, regardless of the matters being discussed. It might be national security, it might be natural disaster mitigation, or it might just be the price of eggs. It’s all to be kept secret, every word, comma and full stop.
Compare both Morrison and Albanese with another political leader. German’s former chancellor Angela Merkel, who, in the early days of the pandemic addressed the German people on 18 March 2020, saying:
This is part of what open democracy is about: that we make political decisions transparent and explain them.
Albanese is wrong as a matter of principle, as Merkel words illustrate, and he’s wrong as a matter of law.
Justice White addressed a blanket claim in his decision on Morrison’s National Cabinet. A claim over the entirety of the submissions before National Cabinet and the meeting minutes is not permissible.
Albanese has taken the legally flawed blue secrecy blanket wrapping the National Cabinet and replaced it with a similar one, only red.
As luck would have it, I already have a National Cabinet matter before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, so this will hopefully get sorted out quickly. However, it’s worth taking note of the message that’s already been sent by the new Prime Minister’s secrecy claim.
In Opposition Labor was rightly highly critical of Scott Morrison’s secrecy obsession; and Labor is still keen to support transparency when it comes to exposing the former government’s transgressions against good government and due process.
All too quickly, and all too easily, however, the new Government is slipping back into the bad habits of those in government. It seems that ‘transparency’ is a word that is only shouted with forceful belief from the opposition side of the House and Senate chambers.
For those Australians who care about our democracy and our responsible system of Government, which requires openness, the fight for transparency doesn’t end.
Photo above:Pointing the bone. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Image: AAP
Michael West Media