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4 October 2021

Independent Senator Rex Patrick will move to amend Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s National Cabinet secrets 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 by Cabinet exemption provisions in the Freedom of Information Act.

“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.’

“Senator Patrick said: “The Governance Committee is Scott Morrison’s dirty secrets committee. 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.” 

In one of the very rare occasions the Prime Minister has referred publicly to the Governance Committee, he used it in an interview with ABC journalist Leigh Sales to justify his flat refusal to release his Departmental Secretary Philip Gaetjen’s report on the Sports Rorts scandal, saying

Well let me deal with the issue of the governance committee Leigh, the governance committee of Cabinet, which involves the Attorney-General, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, which is the Treasurer. That is a governance committee of Cabinet, which deals with very sensitive information. It is not the practice of any government to release information that has been before the governance committee. And so there is nothing extraordinary about that, Leigh. …  And to suggest that somehow the governance committee of Cabinet should somehow be open slather I don't think is a serious suggestion …”

Senator Patrick said: “No public interest test applies to Cabinet secrets exemptions made under Section 34 of the FOI Act. The ban on the release of Cabinet information is absolute. Cabinet confidentiality is a well-accepted feature of Australia’s system of responsible Cabinet government, but that must not be abused to prevent legitimate public scrutiny and accountability. Cabinet confidentiality should certainly not apply to information that goes to possible corruption, criminality or malfeasance within government.” 

“To remedy this, I will move an amendment to the Prime Minister’s controversial COAG Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 that will prevent the Prime Minister from using Cabinet secrecy to obstruct scrutiny of issues that go to the core integrity of government – corruption, criminality and malfeasance.” 

“I have already moved to amend the Bill to eliminate the Prime Minister’s proposed extension of Cabinet secrecy to the deliberations and decisions of the so-called ‘National Cabinet’. 

“This further amendment will provide for change to Section 34 of the FOI Act so that the Cabinet documents exemption cannot be claimed if the content of a document is related to allegations or findings of:

  • A breach of any standards imposed upon Ministers or Assistant Ministers;
  • A member or members of the Executive Government acting beyond power;
  • Misfeasance and malfeasance by a member or members of the Executive Government;
  • Misuse of public funding by a member or members of the Parliament, the Executive, Government or the Judicature;
  • Corruption by any member or members of the Parliament, the Executive Government or the Judicature; and
  • Criminality by any member or members of the Parliament, the Executive Government or the Judicature;

“Such an amendment will not prevent the proper application of other exemptions to FOI disclosure; for example Section 37 of the FOI Act which exempts disclosure of information that could reasonably be expected to prejudice the conduct of an investigation of a breach, or possible breach, of the law; or among other things, prejudice the fair trial of a person or the impartial adjudication of a particular case."

“My proposed amendment won’t stop information from being withheld when its 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.”