CITIZENS’ CORNER: Australia’s Road to Centralized Power
September 22, 2021–Prime Minister Scott Morrison rebranded the Council of Australian
Governments (COAG) with the title of ‘National Cabinet’ in order to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Morrison then restricted access to National Cabinet documents, recently claiming that “documents, discussions, and the business of the National Cabinet are confidential”–even going so far as to state they’re exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. In response, Senator Rex Patrick(I-South Australia) filed a successful challenge to the administration, winning the right, and legal precedent to access National Cabinet documents. In an unprecedented turn of events, Morrison has chosen to completely ignore the Federal Court’s ruling. Finally, Morrison has now introduced a COAG
Legislation Amendment Bill, which includes provisions that, if passed, would; “exempt discussions and
decisions of the cabinet, maintain the confidentiality of National Cabinet as well as its’ committees
to parliament”. In response, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has stated “the Coalition
government is addicted to secrecy”. Concerns were then echoed by Professor Anne Twomey commenting “this is another blatant attack on democratic accountability from a PM who absolutely hates
scrutiny”. Additionally, Researcher Scott Prasser critiqued the National Cabinet stating, “this move has paved the way for a centralization of power”.
Since the creation of the National Cabinet, experts have speculated that Morrison’s goal has been to withhold the National Cabinet discussions and business from the record. This became abundantly clear when Senator Rex Patrick(I-South Australia) filed requests for National Cabinet documents which were denied by the Department of the Prime Minister, citing the official records of the cabinet, were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Unsatisfied with the lack of transparency, Senator Patrick bought forth a legal challenge to the confidentiality of National Cabinet. Filing an appeals with the Administrative Tribunal, Patrick made the argument that Morrison “had no foundation to expand cabinet confidentiality to national cabinet meetings”. Yet, Prime Minister Morrison was steadfast in his assertion that National Cabinet was a substitute for the Council Of Australian Governments (COAG), and would operate as a subcommittee of the regular cabinet. Morrison’s government followed in lockstep, making the case that Prime Minister Morrison, “had the authority to determine what a cabinet committee was”.
Federal Court Justice Richard White disagreed, ruling the National Cabinet is not a
committee of federal cabinet or provided with federal cabinet safeguards. Thus, the
documents Senator Patrick wants access to, are not exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. National Cabinet is nothing more than COAG remodeled by Prime Minister Morrison, as Justice White noted the federal cabinet did not establish the National Cabinet. One cannot skirt public oversight by merely labeling a committee as a ‘Cabinet Committee’. Justice White also cast aside the P.M’s argument that the National Cabinet was a cabinet committee, just because the Prime Minister said so. National cabinet is a intergovernmental meeting, nothing more. Justice White clarified the foundations of Cabinet Government, reminding the Prime Minister he’s bound by government convention and the law. “Mr
Morrison cannot just make things up as he goes along to suit his political interests and
convenience”, stated Justice White.
Morrison, clearly unhappy with Justice White’s decision, is now eagerly attempting to block all public scrutiny. Not only public scrutiny of National Cabinet, but now Morrison is attempting to block matters involving Federal, State and Territorial government functions, as outlined in the “COAG Legislation
Amendment Bill”, currently in Parliament. The new bill appears to be a concerted effort to bypass Justice White’s ruling, rather than appeal the ruling. The COAG Amendment Bill includes provisions to; “protect the discussions and decisions of the cabinet, maintain the confidentiality of National Cabinet and its’ committees”.
So far, Labor has referred the bill to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee, for review, but the move has drawn sharp criticism from colleagues; Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus commented “the Coalition government is addicted to secrecy”. Senator Patrick quipped that the PM was a “sore loser, obsessed with secrecy and allergic to transparency” adding, “This is another blatant attack on democratic accountability from a PM who absolutely hates scrutiny.” Professor Anne Twomey at the
University of Sydney said the bill would “override existing safeguards to release information that is in the public interest”. Former senior researcher and policy adviser of federal and state governments, Scott Prasser, critiqued Morrison’s rebranding of COAG, stating “intergovernmental relations reflect a growing centralization of power”.
Morrison’s attempt to raise the level of National Cabinet’s status and authority, without oversight, would make it exempt from freedom of information laws and protocols, mirroring those given to federal Cabinet. National Cabinet has indeed been successful in achieving co-operation between federal, state and territory governments, as well major COVID-19 reforms, including economic and relief measures, and the implementation of social and border restrictions. Morrison has also hinted that National Cabinet may be the way forward, further fueling rumors that Morrison is keen for the National Cabinet to remain post pandemic. In addition, Morrison’s scope and authority has grown due to the diminished role of Parliament, as sitting days have been drastically reduced amidst the pandemic.
To reiterate, should Morrison’s version of currently proposed legislation pass, permanently replacing the Council Of Australian Governments (COAG) with the ‘National Cabinet’, the people’s business would become exempt from Freedom of Information. Government researcher Scott Prasser has perhaps summed up the situation best, when he stated; “Australia is witnessing the growing centralization of power, with Scott Morrison at the helm seeking to raise the level of National Cabinet status, confidentiality and authority”.