26 September 2021
Independent Senator Rex Patrick has introduced an amendment that will kill Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s proposed legislation to exempt 'National Cabinet' from public scrutiny under Australia’s Freedom of Information (‘FOI’) law.
“The Prime Minister has been unable to introduce a ICAC bill in the two years of this Parliament, but can introduce an oversight obstruction Bill in just 28 days,” Senator Patrick said.
“None the less, it’s not surprising that following Federal Court Justice Richard White’s ruling that ‘National Cabinet is not a real Cabinet’ the Prime Minister introduced a Bill into Parliament to prevent any further release of National Cabinet information under FOI Laws”.
“This is typical of Scott Morrison. He’s obsessed with secrecy. He was caught acting outside the law. Now he wants to change the law.”
“I aim to put a stop to that. I have introduced an amendment that will remove Schedule 3 of the Prime Minister’s COAG Legislation Amendment Bill 2021. If supported by the Labor Opposition and crossbench Senators, that amendment will kill the Prime Minister’s secrecy plans stone dead.”
The COAG Legislation Amendment Bill is now under review by the Senate’s Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee. The Committee will hold a public hearing tomorrow, Monday, 27 September 2021.
The Committee has already received a number of written submissions, including from the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Governance Institute of Australia, the Grata Fund, Professor Anne Twomey, The Australia Institute, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (‘PM&C’), and Senator Patrick himself.
Only one submission, that of the PM&C supports the Prime Minister’s effort to extend a secrecy blanket over the ‘National Cabinet’. All other submissions are opposed or highly critical.
Witnesses appearing on Monday will include Australian Human Rights Commission President, Professor Rosalind Croucher, Australian Information Commissioner Angelene Falk, Acting Freedom of Information Commissioner Elizabeth Hampton, distinguished barrister Geoffrey Watson SC, FOI expert Peter Timmins, constitutional expert Professor Anne Twomey and others.
PM&C will be represented by First Assistant Secretary, Cabinet Division Leonie McGregor; First Assistant Secretary, Intergovernmental Relations Division Lee Steel, and First Assistant Secretary, Government Division, John Reid.
Senator Patrick said: "It's unfortunate that the Secretary of the PM&C, Mr Philip Gaetjens, will not attend the Committee hearing tomorrow. He was the respondent in my successful 'National Cabinet' FOI case before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and I would like to question him about some of the claims he and his Department made that Justice White found to be factually incorrect and not supported by law. He was asked to attend the Committee hearing but has sent other lower-ranked officials in his place."
"Mr Gaetjens should be present and give evidence because 'National Cabinet' is the Prime Minister's political creation with the Secretary of his department doing the work in attempting to shield its decisions and deliberations from public scrutiny."
“The Senate should have a very clear understanding of what's involved here. The Prime Minister’s new secrecy legislation would prevent any external scrutiny of intergovernmental decision making in the ‘National Cabinet’ and ensure that the records of those meetings are confined to the vaults of the National Archives for at least twenty years – long after Scott Morrison has likely left office.”
“This is quite unacceptable. Over the past 18 months the Prime Minister’s 'National Cabinet' has made decisions that have affected every Australian and cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Australians deserve to know how and why those decisions were made. Transparency is vital for democratic accountability.”
"Intergovernmental meetings have always been subject to FOI with a harm threshold and an appropriate public interest test. Mr Morrison is seeking to change that and impose a complete ban on scrutiny. There's no justification for doing so and to do so would erode participation by everyday people in the governing of our Federation."
“I look forward to the Labor Opposition and other members of the crossbench joining me in blocking this assault on transparency and accountability.”
Details on the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee inquiry can be found here.
Details on the COAG Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 and Senator Patrick's amendments can be found here.