Scott Morrison’s division has come under fire for continuing to try to keep national cabinet deliberations secret as legal experts condemn a proposed law as an affront to democracy.
The Senate’s Finance and Public Administration Committee is reviewing laws that would shield the national cabinet – composed of the Prime Minister and state and territory leaders and formed in response to the pandemic – from freedom of information requests by subjecting it to the same disclosure provisions as Federal Cabinet.
Although the Administrative Appeals Tribunal found that the national cabinet was not a subcommittee of the federal cabinet as the government claimed, the ministry of prime minister and cabinet remained in its position as it tried to defend the proposed laws.
“This does nothing but make amends for the prime minister’s decision in early 2020 to set up the national cabinet as a cabinet committee,” said the ministry’s first deputy government division, John Reid.
“The government continues to believe that the national cabinet has been set up and will be set up as a cabinet committee, as the Prime Minister and Prime Ministers made clear at the time of its establishment.”
Independent Senator Rex Patrick, who launched the AAT challenge, said the department was “delusional” and urged them to “cut the crap.”
“The prime minister is clearly absolutely addicted to secrecy, and what he has done has been quite disrespectful to the conventions, the long-standing conventions of good government in Australia,” said Patrick.
Legal experts who attended the committee on Monday also criticized the legislative proposals, with constitutional lawyer Prof. Anne Twomey accusing the government of trying to enact things that were “not true”.
“It’s just a mess and it shows disrespect to the people, the courts, and anyone who says things in the law that are not true,” Twomey said.
“It’s bizarre legislation to be honest. I mean, why should you say something that is not true? Why would you say in legislation that a cat is a dog or vice versa, ”she said.
Australian Human Rights Commission President Prof. Rosalind Croucher told the investigation that the commission was concerned that the proposed bill would increase secrecy on 15 different laws, with changes to the Freedom of Information Act being particularly worrying.
Croucher said the legislation would make a significant change to the application of the FoI Act to COAG, the council of Australian governments, which the national cabinet had replaced.
“Australians should be able to obtain information about the nature of the decisions made by their representatives. This is even more important in emergency situations. If governments are given exceptional powers, it can seriously affect the lives and rights of Australians, ”said Croucher.
She said the proposed changes would include “a permanent change in the public order confidentiality rules”.
“It is important that emergency situations do not become a broad justification for unnecessary expansion of executive power to the detriment of democracy,” said Croucher.
Isabelle Reinecke, the executive director of the Grata Fund, told the committee that Australia’s freedom of information regime was already restrictive and the proposed law would make the situation worse.
“If the proposed change is adopted, it will increase secrecy without proper justification and to the detriment of the public good and the quality of Australian democracy,” she said.
Accountability Round Table Chair, Fiona McLeod, a well-respected attorney and also a former Labor candidate, said the bill was “untenable” in its current form.
“The bill undermines government accountability and transparency and the government’s commitment to the Open Government Partnership,” said McLeod.
Labor Senator Tim Ayres also denied the department’s evidence to the committee, saying that his claim that the national cabinet acted as the federal cabinet subcommittee had already been rejected by Judge Richard White in his ruling.
“I can’t understand why the department comes back to us with the same argument, the same fiction presented in his honor,” said Ayres.
The ministry said it hadn’t appealed the AAT decision and couldn’t say how much it spent on defending the government against Patrick’s actions.
In its submission to the investigation, the Law Council of Australia argued that the existing FoI regime would stop disclosing information if necessary.
“Given that it makes sense to encourage an open discussion in the national cabinet, it is not obvious that the secrecy must extend to the issues discussed or the information presented to this body,” says the submission to the investigation.
“That’s because the national cabinet (unlike a real cabinet) doesn’t manage a government’s budget or political agenda, and doesn’t stand up to the electorate every three to four years.”
The government says the bill makes it clear that the national cabinet is a committee of the federal cabinet.
“Maintaining the confidentiality of the national cabinet’s information and discussions is vital to its effective operation and reflects the close relationship that the national cabinet maintains with the federal cabinet,” reads the ministry’s submission to the prime minister and cabinet.
– With Australian Associated Press