30 April 2020
Senator Rex Patrick has criticised Prime Minister Morrison for being hypocritical in demanding China to open up on its COVID-19 response whilst his own department has refused to open up on Australia's response.
"As the Prime Minister is calling on China to be more transparent and accept an international inquiry into the COVID-19 outbreak, his own bureaucrats are pulling down the shutters on scrutiny of his own administration," said Senator Patrick. "There's a touch of international hypocrisy about that."
In anticipation of the Senate COVID-19 Committee inquiry, Senator Patrick lodged a Freedom of Information request for the early briefings provided to Prime Minister Morrison on the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.
"I was hopeful that the Department would release some useful information that would shed light on the Government’s early assessments and responses in January. A high level of transparency is essential if we are to learn all the lessons we can from the experience of this terrible pandemic."
However the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet has refused access to all of the requested briefings given to the Prime Minister at the beginning of the crisis.
"The Government has piled on every exemption category it can think of – international relations, national security, internal government deliberations and Cabinet business – to withhold every word of five briefings provided to the Prime Minister between the first and thirty first of January. This was the critical time in which the Government first received reports of the coronavirus outbreak, and first learned of human-to human transmission, but decided to only screen flights from Wuhan and hand leaflets to passengers arriving from China."
"The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s blanket refusal to release early briefings to the Prime Minister at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis is deeply disappointing and quite at odds with the Government’s claimed commitment to transparency," said Senator Patrick.
"Transparency and openness are essential for the work of the Senate Select Committee and for the Parliament and Australian people to learn all the lessons we can from the Government’s handling of the pandemic. Unfortunately the bureaucrats at PM&C department don’t seem to understand this or else have been instructed to be obstructive."
“The Australian Government is right to seek an international inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic, and China needs to be much more transparent and cooperative. But our government’s position would be much stronger, and much less hypocritical, if they committed to full transparency themselves and didn’t engage in bureaucratic obstruction and obfuscation."
"The Prime Minister can fix this by directing his department to release the briefings. He should do so now."
"He needs to practice what he preaches," said Senator Patrick.
The full FOI decision can be accessed here.