National cabinet changes extending ‘tentacles of secrecy’ as senators prepare for

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news, federal-politics, national cabinet, rex patrick, tim ayres, foi, freedom of information, larissa waters, claire chandler

Proposed changes enabling national cabinet discussions to be exempt from public scrutiny will extend the “tentacles of secrecy” with opposition and crossbench senators signalling a fight ahead. A government-majority Senate committee recommended passing a new bill on Tuesday allowing national cabinet deliberations to remain secret, in a move Labor senators have criticised as legislating fiction. It comes after independent senator Rex Patrick delivered a major blow to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s claim that documents and briefings presented and generated in the newly-created governmental forum were exempt from freedom of information requests. Opposition and crossbench senators criticised the law for extending the “tentacles of secrecy”, diminishing public knowledge on important issues and setting a dangerous precedent for future governments. Sufficient protections in freedom of information laws were already in place to protect Commonwealth-state relations and deliberative processes, Labor’s dissenting report said. But Coalition chair Senator Claire Chandler said it was not unreasonable for government heads to want to discuss and make important decisions with the “protection of confidentiality”. Critical senators also expressed concerns over the politicisation of public servants within the Department of Prime Minister and the Cabinet under the Morrison government. PM&C secretary Phil Gaetjens, a respondent in Senator Patrick’s Administrative Appeals Tribunal case, did not appear before the committee when called upon. Three first assistant secretaries from PM&C instead appeared before senators, which committee deputy chair and Labor senator Tim Ayres said had failed to provide accurate evidence in his report. “Officials are expected to provide accurate evidence even when that evidence is inconvenient or embarrassing for the government of the day,” he said. “Labor senators are concerned the contempt for accountability that is the hallmark of the Morrison government now extends to his department, which once exemplified the very best of the Australian Public Service.” Senator Patrick said the performance of the public servants was “utterly unworthy”, adding they had failed to remain apolitical. “Institutional decline and politicisation of the top ranks of the public service were all too evident in their evasive and unsatisfactory evidence,” he said. READ MORE: All three dissenting reports recommended removing schedule three, which allows the deliberations be exempt from information requests. Senator Patrick said government members of the committee were “downright foolish” to recommend the bill be passed without amendments. “Coalition senators would be absolutely screaming abuse of constitutional convention and cabinet precedent if a future Labor Prime Minister exploited the precedent that would be established by this bill to create his or her own national cabinet of a radically different membership,” he said. Greens senator Larissa Waters said while keeping discussions secret might conceal embarrassing truths, it was not a strong enough excuse. “Hiding from scrutiny may make decision makers more comfortable,” she said. “But political convenience and the desire to avoid embarrassment are not valid reasons for secrecy and cannot override the public interest in understanding how decisions are made.” Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content:

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Read More:National cabinet changes extending ‘tentacles of secrecy’ as senators prepare for

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