The Politics    Friday, June 17, 2022

Secret leaders’ business

By Rachel Withers

Image of Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan after a national cabinet meeting in Canberra today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan after a national cabinet meeting in Canberra today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

National cabinet enters a new era of congeniality, but remains shrouded in secrecy

States had some of their demands met in the first meeting of national cabinet under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, with the Commonwealth agreeing to extend the 50/50 funding split for pandemic-related hospital expenses until the end of the year. Going into the meeting, premiers had been confident of an extension to the arrangement, which was previously due to end in September, and several took a swipe at Scott Morrison on the way past, expressing hope of an open mind from Albanese. (Even the NSW Liberal premier, Dominic Perrottet, seemed fine with the new leadership.) Speaking afterwards, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said politics had been “put aside” during the meeting, which also saw states agree to support the push for a referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament (a major forum for which was held last night). Albanese, meanwhile, promised to pour more resources into clearing the visa backlog to address the skills shortage, another state demand. But when it came to “cabinet confidentiality” and the release of documents, nothing much has changed, with the new PM backtracking on his previous criticism of it and refusing to say why, in a move that has frustrated some.

There had been some hope in the lead-up to the meeting that something might give on transparency, with Labor having been fierce critics of the Morrison government’s secrecy from Opposition. Guardian Australia’s Paul Karp, who has long reported on the issue, has laid out many of the times Albanese previously attacked the Morrison government over it, including after his own FOI requests were rejected. The then shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus had also promised to unwind the secrecy once in office. The Australian Medical Association yesterday expressed hope for the new regime, calling for an overhaul of the confidentiality rules, while former senator and transparency champion Rex Patrick tweeted that today’s talks “should end bogus claims that national cabinet was a subcommittee of federal cabinet, shrouded in secrecy”.

It quickly became apparent this morning, however, that little would change, with premiers indicating that the furtiveness was here to stay. When asked by Karp after the meeting whether he had raised ending the secrecy (and if not, what had changed), Albanese offered a blunt “no”, refusing to take his follow-up questions. As Patrick tweeted in response, “the transparency battle continues”, indicating that he would go on challenging for documents via legal avenues. Labor also appears to have backtracked somewhat on its vow to be more inclusive of local government, which Morrison left out when he replaced the Council of Australian Governments with national cabinet in 2020; Albanese revealed today that they would only be invited once a year, despite cabinet meeting quarterly.

It’s disappointing, though hardly surprising, to see a party change its stance on an issue of transparency upon coming into power (“the rot begins,” lamented Patrick). But it was especially disappointing to see Albanese dismiss the topic so bluntly, sounding a little like his predecessor in his refusal to engage at all in what was a clear backflip on his part. The Morrison government took secrecy to a whole new level, refusing basic FOI requests and openly flouting the law. How far down that path will the Albanese government follow? It remains to be seen what the new Opposition will make of this, whether they will suddenly become the champions of national cabinet transparency now that they are on the other side of the chamber. Clearly, they are shameless enough.

After his own FOI request for national cabinet documents was denied last year, Albanese told Guardian Australia that Morrison’s “obsession with secrecy has undermined the law that protects all Australians’ right to know and, if left unchecked, threatens other fundamental rights”. As Karp asked today, seeking to know why Albanese was no longer up in arms about document transparency, “what changed?” He refused to answer that part of Karp’s question, but it’s quite clear what has changed here: Albanese is now the one sitting at the head of the table.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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