Senate probe to probe ‘cloak of secrecy’ over national cabinet
A government move to shield national cabinet meetings from scrutiny should be ‘killed’, says Independent Senator Rex Patrick, as he issues a counter-challenge to block last-minute changes.
It comes on the eve of a Senate hearing on controversial legislation that would prevent executive meetings from being subject to freedom of information (FOI) disclosures – which has worried government accountability experts.
“That’s typical Scott Morrison,” Sen. Patrick said.
“He is obsessed with secrecy. He was caught acting outside the law. Now he wants to change the law.
Federal cabinet deliberations are exempt from freedom of information legislation, which allows anyone to request documents from departments.
Journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens can request documents, but many exemptions or grounds for redaction are often applied by the services or persons concerned with the information.
The federal government has argued that cabinet confidentiality extends to the national cabinet, which includes state and territory leaders, meaning that documents reviewed by that body should not be available as part of requests for access to information.
Cabinet documents are usually only released after 20 years, to preserve the confidentiality of sensitive decisions.
However, last month, Senator Patrick won a landmark court case which ruled that the national cabinet was not freedom of information exempt, and therefore national cabinet documents could be requested under freedom of information. ‘information.
In response, the federal government introduced the Bill amending COAG legislationwhich – among other changes – seeks to extend federal cabinet provisions “to protect proceedings and decisions from disclosure” to the national cabinet.
“The Prime Minister has not been able to introduce an ICAC Bill in the two years of this Parliament, but can introduce an Obstruction of Surveillance Bill in just 28 days,” said Senator Patrick.
“Intergovernmental meetings have always been subject to freedom of information with a harm threshold and an appropriate public interest test. Mr Morrison is seeking to change that and impose a total ban on scrutiny.
“There is no justification for doing so and it would erode ordinary people’s participation in the governance of our federation.”
The federal government’s bill has worried privacy and accountability groups, which have made numerous submissions to a Senate investigation into the bill.
The Australian Human Rights Commission noted that the Australian Government Council, the predecessor to the National Cabinet, was subject to freedom of information.
The commission claimed that calling the national cabinet a cabinet committee was “misleading and obscures the nature of the body”.
The Accountability Roundtable criticized the government’s “boldness” in seeking to place a “veil of secrecy” over the deliberations of the national cabinet.
Professor Anne Twomey, a respected academic in constitutional law, said ‘obviously it’s not’ a Cabinet committee, and claimed the changes could ‘[bring] discredit the law and [damage] public confidence in the law”.
Those experts, along with the Australian Information Commissioner’s Office and the Prime Minister and Cabinet Department, will appear before a Senate hearing on the bill on Monday.
Sen. Patrick said he plans to introduce amendments to the COAG bill that would remove the national cabinet disclosure protection provisions.
He is calling on Labor and the Cross Benches to back his Senate amendments, a move that would effectively sabotage the government’s plan.
“The new Prime Minister’s secrecy legislation would prevent any external scrutiny of intergovernmental decision-making within the ‘national cabinet’ and ensure that records of such meetings are confined to the vaults of the National Archives for at least 20 years” , said Senator Patrick.
“This is completely unacceptable. Over the past 18 months, the Prime Minister’s ‘national cabinet’ has made decisions that have affected all Australians and cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
“Australians deserve to know how and why these decisions were made. Transparency is vital for democratic accountability.
In its submission to the Senate inquiry, the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office claimed it was “essential” that the national cabinet be given the same disclosure protections as the federal cabinet.
“Enforcing cabinet conventions on national cabinet information supports full and candid discussions among leaders, with a view to ensuring sound decisions in the interests of all Australians,” the department said.
“Maintaining the confidentiality of National Cabinet information and discussions is essential to its effective operation and reflects the close relationship the National Cabinet has with the Federal Cabinet.”
A recent statement from the national cabinet said its discussions were “based on the same principles of trust, confidence and collaboration that underpin the state, territory and Commonwealth cabinets.”
He also said confidentiality allows members to “exchange different viewpoints and achieve results together.”