Australian Medical Association calls for overhaul of national cabinet secrecy rules

Secrecy rules should not “automatically” apply to national cabinet documents and deliberations, the head of the Australian Medical Association has said.

Omar Khorshid made the comments ahead of Anthony Albanese’s first meetings with the state and territory leaders on Thursday evening. Friday’s meeting is expected to deliver major changes to the intergovernmental body, including a greater productivity reform focus.

Before the election Albanese was critical of national cabinet secrecy. He also promised to reform national cabinet by adding local government.

Scott Morrison excluded local government when he transformed the Council of Australian Governments (Coag) into national cabinet in March 2020 in the early stages of the Covid pandemic.

The Morrison government claimed national cabinet was a subcommittee of the federal cabinet, allowing it to block releases of documents under freedom of information laws, even after it lost a case on that point brought by Senator Rex Patrick in the administrative appeals tribunal.

Albanese has argued that Coag was better at federation reform and convening meetings of ministers to discuss productivity reforms, suggesting on Thursday those features “have just disappeared” under Morrison’s national cabinet model.

Khorshid said that Coag “was pretty frustrating for those who experienced it”.

“One of the great things about national cabinet when it was first opened was it allowed our states and commonwealth to work together quickly to effect change,” he said in Canberra. “Of course, emergency measures are not appropriate for a reform agenda over many years.

“We do need to go back to having the appropriate processes,” he said, such as a “reform commission”.

Khorshid said governments “take secrecy a little bit too seriously”. “Australians have a right to know what is being discussed, and want to know what is being discussed at the top table.”

He said governments do need to keep “some discussions away from public eye for a period of time” to prevent a headline “kill[ing] off a good idea far too early”.

“But in general we should always fall on the side of transparency,” he said, to encourage “open discussions about the state of our health system, open discussions about reform options”.

Khorshid rejected the Morrison government’s practice of exempting national cabinet documents from FOI laws, arguing we should not assume federal government’s cabinet rules apply to national cabinet.

“It really is a replacement for Coag, you’d expect the same level of secrecy that applied to Coag to [apply to] a future replacement for Coag,” he said.

National cabinet is so secretive that its documents are confidential to the government that created them – meaning the Albanese government has not had access to Morrison-era records.

Morrison erected hurdles in the cabinet handbook in the event of a change of government, requiring the secretary of the department of the prime minister and cabinet to consult the opposition leader, as a representative of the previous government, before releasing documents.

Earlier on Thursday Albanese would not be drawn on how he will reform national cabinet, saying he would discuss it with premiers and chief ministers tonight.

“I haven’t participated in those processes up until today. I will work those things through cooperatively,” he said, promising to re-examine “the whole way that the process functions”.

“Part of that will be, I want to see how we can involve local government, I will discuss that with them tonight, as I will discuss the way that we progress into the future.

“We need to lift productivity in this country. One way that we lift productivity is through micro-economic reform.

“And I have foreshadowed with the premiers and chief ministers that is something that I want to discuss as well, how we get that driving through of that reform, how we get better national consistency, how we remove some of the duplication which is there as well. All of that has just disappeared.”

The South Australian premier, Peter Malinauskas, said he was “open-minded” about reforming the structure of national cabinet and was “very interested” to hear Albanese’s proposal.

“Certainly I think there is a role, if not an urgent need, for seamless collaborative engagement between the states and commonwealth, regardless of political persuasion,” Malinauskas said.

Comments are closed.