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Vault open: National cabinet loses secrecy

national cabinet secrecy
Proposed laws seek to protect Scott Morrison and the premiers' discussions in national cabinet. Photo: AAP
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National cabinet documents will no longer be secret after a judge ruled against the Morrison government’s fight to keep the federal-state deliberations confidential.

Independent senator Rex Patrick, who launched the legal battle, said the decision was a huge win for transparency and accountability.

He said Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to replace the Council of Australian Governments with national cabinet at the start of the pandemic wrapped a blanket of secrecy over the meetings.

“It was inappropriate and it has been found to be unlawful,” Senator Patrick told ABC radio on Friday.

“The vault is now open. There are still protections in place. This is not carte blanche.”

Sensitive commercial or national security information will still be protected under freedom of information laws.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet was granted a 28-day stay on releasing documents giving it time to consider an appeal.

Senator Patrick said he requested national cabinet meeting minutes to trigger action in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

He has other pending freedom of information requests, including the expert medical panel’s advice to leaders on lockdowns and border closures.

The Senate’s coronavirus response committee will write to government departments who previously claimed cabinet confidentiality.

The government will have to prove releasing the documents could cause harm rather than impose blanket rejections.

Senator Patrick labelled the refusal to release economic and health modelling as cavalier.

“There have been some good things the government has done but there’s also been some absolute failures – things like quarantine and the vaccine rollout,” he said.

“The more information that is released, the less confused people are likely to be. You also can’t use embarrassment as an excuse.”

The Prime Minister’s lawyers opposed Senator Patrick’s demand to see medical advice on borders, lockdowns, vaccinations, school closures, the aged care death toll and failures in disability.

Justice Richard White ruled national cabinet documents should be made available to the senator, as they were not exempt under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet argued national cabinet was a committee of the federal decision-making body protected under the law.

-AAP