In the Morrison government’s war on accountability, cabinet confidentiality has become a weapon of choice. A once-rare exemption to freedom of information rules, it is now ritually slapped on all matter of requests, stamping out transparency and broadening the blanket of secrecy over government affairs.
Now the exemption has been used to block the release of Phil Gaetjens’ report into the sports rorts scandal. The report was initially buried by Gaetjens, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary and Morrison’s former chief of staff, despite a summary finding there were “significant shortcomings” in the way former sports minister Bridget McKenzie decided on the grant.
Media outlets and other parties have since applied for access to the report under FOI laws, but have been rebuffed. They’ve taken their requests to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, where the government has argued the report is covered by Cabinet-in-Confidence, and therefore exempt from the FOI Act.
Experts have noted what they believe is a steady rise in the use of the cabinet exemption to avoid the release of information under the Morrison government. The government has used cabinet confidentiality to block FOIs seeking key instructions Morrison issued to ministers, prompting criticism it was using cabinet “as a transparency shield”. It has also applied it to deliberations inside the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which is made up of the Commonwealth and state chief medical officers.
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The sweeping use of cabinet confidentiality has been used to block the release of potentially damaging reports on government. Last month it was revealed it was being used in the government’s fight to keep hidden documents that a former public servant says could expose what went wrong with Centrelink’s botched robodebt program.
But there is also increasing pushback. Independent Senator Rex Patrick is challenging the idea that cabinet confidentiality should extend to the national cabinet and the now defunct National COVID-19 Commission (NCC) advisory board.
If this legal challenge in the AAT is successful, some of the most sensitive discussions between state and federal leaders in the national cabinet could be laid bare, including discussions on the closure of domestic borders and the Commonwealth’s responsibilities for building quarantine facilities. It could also reveal discussions about preventing and managing aged care outbreaks, including the date on which Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck first briefed cabinet in relation to COVID-19.
Of course, there are legitimate reasons for some cabinet discussions to remain secret, such as national security issues. But critics say the rise in the use of cabinet exemptions shows just how willing the Morrison government is to hide damaging information that the public deserves to know.
“It’s an absolutely fundamental constitutional principle that the executive is responsible to the Parliament,” Professor Anne Twomey at the University of Sydney said. “We have to be careful to make sure that cabinet confidentiality is not misused so as to undermine that principle.”