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Canberra Today 0°/5° | Monday, October 25, 2021 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

More secrets being hidden in national cabinet

National cabinet… a real cabinet is accountable to the parliament from which the government gains its power, says Prof Anne Twomey.

“While a small number of protestors are using violence to make a point about their right to freedom from vaccination, much more important civil liberties are being eroded,” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE.

NATIONAL cabinet has been an effective intergovernmental committee in assisting Australia to fight the scourge of COVID-19. 

Michael Moore.

However, even though the Prime Minister has called it a “national cabinet” it is simply an inter-governmental body. It is not a cabinet. It is not entitled to cabinet privileges and protections.

While the rest of the country was focusing on lockdowns, the spread of the virus and vaccinations, Senator Rex Patrick, from SA, has highlighted the game being played by some in the federal government. Through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), he has forced the government out of its first attempt at secrecy. Unfortunately, it is making another.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet denied access to certain records of the “national cabinet” along with some documents he had requested regarding its rules, how it made decisions and what decisions would be binding. 

The claim was that this “national cabinet” was a committee of the federal cabinet and, as such, the information could be protected as cabinet-in-confidence.

The notion was patently false. The AAT found in Patrick’s favour. It is brilliant that this crossbench senator was able to hold the federal government to account and illustrated the advantage of a diverse membership of a parliament. 

The “national cabinet” is not a new idea. It is really a change of name. It was established in March, 2020, to replace the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). The idea is that governments reach a co-ordinated position and then each jurisdiction implements the decision as seen fit by the various governments.

Anne Twomey, a professor of constitutional law at Sydney University, pointed out in “The Conversation” that a real cabinet is accountable to the parliament from which the government gains its power. 

She added that cabinets make collective decisions for which each member is equally responsible. She pointed out: “To maintain this collective responsibility, records of who argued for and against a decision are kept strictly confidential for decades.”

Senator Rex Patrick… highlighted the game being played by some in the federal government.

The notion of cabinet-in-confidence allows appropriate functioning of a cabinet in taking collective ministerial responsibility – also known as cabinet solidarity. I should point out that one of the features of my own time as an independent minister, as well as with others in similar circumstances since that time, is that there were exemptions allowed to this principle of cabinet solidarity. 

However, a meeting of the leaders of different jurisdictions, even having been labelled a “national cabinet”, does not take power from a single parliament nor does it require collective responsibility. 

When Justice White, of the AAT, brought down his decision he said: “Use of the name ‘national cabinet’ does not, of itself, have the effect of making a group of persons using the name a ‘committee of the cabinet’.”

The Prime Minister had the option of appealing the decision of the AAT. However, such an appeal would have little chance of success in overturning the decision of Justice White.

The approach taken by the Prime Minister was even more appalling. Instead of testing what is appropriate through our legal system, the government simply introduced a Bill. The COAG Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 seeks to amend legislation to ensure definitions of cabinet includes the national cabinet.

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties, in an article by Rebecca Payne, argued: “This cannot be seen as anything other than a blatant and cynical attempt to avoid transparency by including within the definition of cabinet something that cannot properly be called a cabinet at all.” 

While a small number of protestors are using the streets and violence to make a point about their right to freedom from vaccination, much more important civil liberties are being eroded. Should this legislation be successful, the reasons behind decisions taken in the “national cabinet” will remain secret for 30 years.

At a time when trust in politicians and our democratic systems are being eroded, the last thing that’s needed is more secrecy – particularly across all jurisdictions in Australia.

Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health. He has been a political columnist with “CityNews” since 2006.

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