National COVID-19 Commission chair Nev Power (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

As the secrecy of national cabinet decisions look set to be tested, an academic who raised serious concerns about the government’s highly secretive National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board has criticised efforts to address its conflicts of interest, saying they do nothing to improve transparency.

Elizabeth Hicks, a law academic at the University of Melbourne who wrote a policy brief last year scrutinising the commission’s function, told Crikey its updated terms of reference were “window dressing”.

“There is still no transparent process for reporting conflicts,” she said.

“There’s no real public transparency there. It can rely on those opaque processes that cabinet has that really only exist in the context of ministers. It’s not meant to be for these broader bodies composed of unelected individuals.”

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Hicks’ policy brief found the commission risked a “subversion” of democracy because of its lack of transparency and the fact that it had no legislative underpinning or independent appointment process for members.

The commission is one of three bodies, including the national cabinet and the Australian Protection Principal Committee, that were deemed “committees of cabinet”, meaning their deliberations, ­papers and outcomes are considered cabinet-in-confidence.

That secrecy is due to be tested by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in May after independent Senator Rex Patrick launched proceedings against the government after two freedom of information requests for minutes of the national cabinet meetings were knocked back.

Grattan Institute researcher Kate Griffiths said: “We haven’t seen elected officials make the justification for why this commission is still needed.

“There was a suggestion at the start of the crisis that quick advice was needed. But we are well past that point now and the commission is still in existence, and it’s not even clear what advisory role it’s playing.”

Another test case against the government’s claims that national cabinet deliberations are exempt from FOI laws is being filed by the Australian Conservation Foundation, which wants access to information about the 15 environmental approvals “fast-tracked” by the Environment Minister Sussan Ley.

Patrick says it’s inconsistent with responsible government to “put up the shutters”.

“We cannot have a prime minister unilaterally cast a secrecy blanket over the operation of government,” he told The Australian.

Griffiths says the public has a right to expect more transparency over the COVID commission since it was influencing public policymaking.

“It’s up to the government to explain why it is needed and to provide some transparency and justification for why a body such as this can be kept secret,” she said.

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