Laws to ensure Australia’s political leaders can keep the workings of national cabinet confidential will face a parliamentary inquiry.
The bill introduced to parliament by minister Alan Tudge on Thursday will cloak advice and information in confidentiality, similar to the cabinet-in-confidence seal that protects the federal cabinet’s deliberations.
Labor swiftly referred the legislation for inquiry by the Senate’s finance and public administration committee.
“At a time when record amounts of taxpayers’ funds are being spent responding to the pandemic, the Australian people have every right to be kept informed about what is being done in their name,” Labor spokesman Mark Dreyfus said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and state and territory leaders agreed in March last year to establish national cabinet to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The national cabinet began from a realisation that if the Commonwealth, states and territories each tried to go their own way, Australia would fall short in its response to the pandemic,” Mr Tudge said.
Since then, leaders have used the meetings to square off over hotel quarantine, lockdowns and the vaccine rollout.
Advice and discussions in national cabinet and its committees are covered by the proposed laws, as well as information on how financial assistance for states and territories is handed out.
“Like the Commonwealth cabinet and its committees, the maintenance of confidentiality is essential to enable full and frank discussion between the representatives of all jurisdictions,” Mr Tudge said.
Independent senator Rex Patrick said Mr Morrison was “obsessed with secrecy”.
He condemned the proposed bill, which he said sought to overturn a Federal Court judgment that national cabinet was not a real cabinet and that its deliberations should be open to freedom of information scrutiny.
“Having acted outside and contrary to the law with regard to national cabinet secrecy, the Prime Minister now wants to change the law,” Senator Patrick said.
The independent think-tank the Australia Institute said merely calling something a cabinet did not make it so.
“If national cabinet is going to continue after the COVID-19 pandemic, the public must be confident that it will be transparent, accountable and open to expert advice,” spokesman Bill Browne said.
The inquiry will report back in October.