Senator Katy Gallagher chairs the Senate select committee on COVID-19 (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Well, Crikey called it. We warned the national cabinet was a bad idea because its rules, processes and information are shrouded in secrecy.

In its second interim report, the select committee on COVID-19 has slammed the Morrison government and the national cabinet for not providing crucial information about the pandemic and hindering the committee’s ability to do what it’s supposed to do: scrutinise the government’s response to the pandemic.

Wartime concept

This is the second time in history the national cabinet has formed, made up of state and territory premiers and chief ministers. The first time was during World War II, although then it consisted only of federal MPs.

The cabinet was formed to cut past the sluggish, bureaucratic process of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). But it serves another purpose: to keep things secret from the public.

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Cabinets have a different set of rules and provisions. Documents — anything brought to the cabinet, even if prepared by another minister or department, remain the property of the government and are supposed to remain secret for 20 to 30 years.

What information is missing?

There are seven members of the select committee — including chair Labor Senator Katy Gallagher and deputy chair Liberal Senator James Paterson — and senators from Labor, the Greens, the Nationals and independent Jacqui Lambie.

The interim report focuses on public interest immunity claims — national cabinet argues the information should stay secret but the committee says that has “compromised the committee’s ability to scrutinise government decisions with a profound impact on lives of Australians”.

“The committee is concerned that they reflect a pattern of conduct in which the government has wilfully obstructed access to information that is crucial for the committee’s inquiry,” it said.

The committee wants access to government legal advice about the COVIDSafe app, information about whether health data modelling about scenarios for coronavirus infections were provided to the cabinet, dates of particular government decisions and deliberations — including its response to protecting those in aged care — and advice given to national cabinet by the Productivity Commission and on the reintroduction of the liquid assets test for certain Centrelink payments.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Liberal committee member Senator James Paterson lauded the government’s “significant cooperation with the Senate inquiry”.

We can’t rely on FOI

While freedom of information (FOI) applications can be lodged for some cabinet documents, cabinet records and notebooks are exempt. The Prime Minister’s Office met FOI deadlines in just 7.5% of cases in the 2019-20 financial year.

Greens Senator Larissa Waters has accused the Morrison government of responding to FOI requests with “answers that are so massaged and workshopped that they are meaningless”.