Andrew Barr was not entirely correct when he said the federal government's latest attempt to exempt national cabinet deliberations from freedom-of-information legislation was a "solution looking for a problem".
That's because the problem the bill to extend cabinet-in-confidence protections to national cabinet is intended to fix has little or nothing to do with genuine concerns about national security. It's not about official secrets, it's about officials' secrets.
The intent of the bill is to spare the government - particularly the PM - from the embarrassment of having the processes by which mistakes in the response to the pandemic came to be made, and how decisions were explained to state and territory leaders, exposed to the public gaze.
Given the curious decisions in late 2020 that marred the acquisition of vaccines, the farcical way in which the "marathon not a sprint" rollout was conducted in the first part of 2021, the ad hoc decision to criminalise Australian citizens attempting to return to Australia from India earlier this year, the apparent financial assistance favouritism to NSW over Victoria when the first Delta variant outbreaks occurred, the failure to develop stand-alone quarantine facilities even though it is now almost 20 months since the virus first appeared, and the ad hoc way in which JobKeeper's replacement was belatedly phased in, there is certainly a lot to keep under the doona.
God forbid the voting public be made privy to what advice was received, who said what to whom, and how decisions were reached; especially given there will likely be an election within six months.
When the national cabinet structure was rushed into place by Mr Morrison in March 2020, it took the place of the Council of Australian Governments, a body nobody has ever suggested was a subcommittee of the federal cabinet.
Anyone who doubts that should cast their mind back to Paul Keating's pithy observation that nobody should ever "get between a state premier and a bucket of money".
Despite this, Mr Morrison was very quick to unilaterally state that the new body would function as a subcommittee of the regular cabinet and, by implication, normal cabinet confidentiality would apply.
Senate crossbencher Rex Patrick took the matter to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which handed down its judgment at the start of August.
Justice Richard White rejected the view that the national cabinet was a subcommittee of cabinet, on the grounds that Mr Morrison had overreached.
"This seemed tantamount to a submission that any committee may be a committee of the cabinet for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act merely because the prime minister of the day has purported to establish it as such," he said. "This premise is unsound."
Mr White, who was able to review the documents that had been sought by Senator Patrick under FOI, concluded none of them were "an official record of cabinet" and were not exempt.
This judgment was wise and timely. Millions of people have been forced out of work and asked to sacrifice their freedom of movement and other liberties for the common good. Billions of dollars have been spent on a scale never seen before outside of wartime, and the national debt has skyrocketed.
The vast majority of people have accepted the necessity of these decisions. They deserve, in return, to be able to access as much information about how and why these decisions were made as it is possible to give.
It's called accountability.
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