In one episode of the classic ABC TV series Hollowmen one of the characters is seen taking Central Policy Unit documents on a trolley through the empty cabinet room, explaining that now the documents can be classified as “cabinet documents” and are therefore unable to be released for 30 years. But this month, the Supreme Court of Victoria challenged the extent to which government can claim certain documents to be “cabinet documents”.

In the long-running case brought by Majid Kamasaee against the Australian government over the conditions on Manus Island during his detention there, the government has sought to block access to 25 documents it claims are cabinet documents.

In addition to actual submissions to cabinet that would be exempt, the government is attempting to classify draft plans to do with the operation of Manus Island, talking points and other peripheral documents that never made it to cabinet as cabinet documents. The government is arguing that anything prepared by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to inform and support the cabinet must be exempt, as well as any document prepared by a department to brief a minister for cabinet. This stance has the backing of the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, who told the court that any release of the documents would “significantly interfere with the efficient operation of cabinet, and therefore decision-making and policy development in Australia”.

The court wasn’t completely buying the argument, however, and this month ruled that the government must provide more information on the cabinet process and the “proximity” of a document to a cabinet deliberation.

Peter Fray

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