Senator claims win over government secrecy

Rex Patrick says the ruling has repudiated that national cabinet is covered by secrecy exemptions.
Rex Patrick says the ruling has repudiated that national cabinet is covered by secrecy exemptions.

A judge has backed independent senator Rex Patrick's bid to have national cabinet's COVID-19 deliberations made public.

The prime minister's lawyers had opposed Senator Patrick's demand for Australians to see the shared medical advice driving decisions on borders, lockdowns, vaccinations, school closures, the aged care death toll and failures in disability.

But in an Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision released on Thursday, Justice Richard White ruled that national cabinet documents be made available to Senator Patrick, as they were not exempt under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had argued that the national cabinet introduced by Scott Morrison to handle the pandemic was a committee of the federal cabinet whose minutes are exempt for production under the act.

The department sought a stay on granting access to the documents, pending an appeal to the Federal Court.

"As the parties did not make submissions with respect to that application, I will give them the opportunity to do so," Justice White said in his decision.

Senator Patrick said the decision was a "decisive repudiation of Prime Minister Morrison's claims that National Cabinet is part of the Federal Cabinet system and covered by absolute secrecy exemptions under our national Freedom of Information law.

"This is a decisive win for transparency and accountability."

Senator Patrick said the national cabinet was not established properly and early decisions were poorly documented.

"This is another political, legal and administrative shambles produced by a Prime Minister making things up as he went along," the senator said in a statement.

He added that although the government may appeal to the Federal Court, and perhaps ultimately the High Court, it was a landmark decision opening the way for more effective scrutiny of the response of all Australian governments to the pandemic.

Australian Associated Press