Secretive cabinet could crack open
Moves are afoot to end the confidentiality of the National Cabinet.
In mid-2020, the Morrison Government announced a new National Federation Reform Council (NFRC) to replace Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meetings.
It scrapped COAG in favour of a National Cabinet process in order to streamline decisions relating to the nation’s COVID-19 response.
It has been seen by some as a move towards an opaque process in which the Prime Minister can browbeat premiers and chief ministers into lining up behind his latest announceable.
The new process has been heavily criticised for its closed-door meetings and lack of transparency.
Independent Senator Rex Patrick has applied under the Freedom of Information Act for certain documents on the formation and functioning of the National Cabinet, but the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet knocked him back.
It claimed that because National Cabinet is a sub-committee of the federal cabinet, its papers are exempt from disclosure.
Senator Patrick then appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal where deputy president, Justice Richard White, slammed the PM&C’s case, finding it had made a string of faulty claims about the operational history of the federal cabinet.
But now, the Morrison Government has put forth the COAG Legislation Amendment Bill, which seeks to amend the definition of federal cabinet so that the National Cabinet will legally become a committee of the federal cabinet.
The bill would also amend 17 Acts to close off the possibility of the disclosure of National Cabinet documents by the Auditor-General, the Ombudsman, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and a host of others.
Minister Alan Tudge in his second reading speech on the bill sensationally claimed it “ushers in a new and exciting era of our federation”.
Mr Tudge claimed that a blanket exemption from disclosure of all national cabinet documents is essential to keep its discussions “full and frank”.
PM&C says keeping the inner workings of Australia’s pandemic response and economic recovery secret is “in the interests of all Australians”.
Experts have pointed out that legislating to define the national cabinet as a committee of federal cabinet denies the self-evident fact that the national cabinet is composed of state leaders.
Independent Senator Rex Patrick says he will now move to amend Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s National Cabinet legislation to remove information that relates to corruption, criminality, breaches of Ministerial standards and misuse of public funding by members of the Federal Parliament, Executive Government or judiciary from being kept confidential.
Senator Patrick says people need to see the inner-workings.
“Few people outside of Government know about Scott Morrison’s Cabinet Governance Committee, yet it’s one of the Prime Minister’s key mechanisms to keep his Government’s dirtiest secrets under lock and key,” Senator Patrick said.
“I want to put an end to that.
“If public confidence in the integrity of government is to be restored, the Prime Minister can’t have a black hole into which all manner of scandals can be buried to avoid full public scrutiny.”
According to a very brief entry in the Australian Government Directory, the highly secretive Governance Committee is comprised of the Prime Minister and Liberal leader Mr Morrison; Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, Treasurer and deputy Liberal leader Josh Frydenberg, and the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations Michaelia Cash.
The Directory states that the Governance Committee “provides advice and oversight of governance and integrity issues, which include, but are not limited to, the Statement of Ministerial Standards and issues arising from the Lobbyist Code.”
“The Governance Committee is Scott Morrison’s dirty secrets committee,” Senator Patrick says.
“By requiring integrity and probity inquiries to report to the Governance Committee, the Prime Minister has been able to pull down a shroud of absolute Cabinet secrecy over all manner of scandals.
“Reports and other documents commissioned or considered by the Governance Committee are all exempt from release under Section 34 of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 which provides for an absolute prohibition on release of Cabinet papers, so that they are effectively buried in the vaults of the National Archives for at least 20 years.
“From the Sports Rorts scandal of Senator Bridgette McKenzie, the Ministerial Standards non-compliance allegations against Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop for their post ministerial employment with EY and Palladium, respectively, to the downfall of former Attorney-General Christian Porter, the Prime Minister has used the Governance Committee to exercise control over the release and more commonly the denial of information relating to some of the Government’s most politically damaging scandals. And those are only the scandals we know about.
“Nothing is known of the Governance Committee’s highly secret meetings and agenda.
“My proposed amendment won’t stop information from being withheld when it's clearly in the public interest to do so, but if passed by the Parliament, it will shut down Prime Minister Morrison’s Governance Committee as a place to bury the Government’s scandals.
“The Prime Minister and his colleagues will still be free to meet and discuss their dirty secrets, they just won’t be able to rely on absolute Cabinet confidentiality to protect them.”