The Victorian government has lost its fight to maintain a veil of secrecy over controversial Covid health orders made during the February lockdown in 2021.
Premier Daniel Andrews and Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton will be forced to release the details of secret meetings and more than 100 pages of confidential briefings from the Department of Health.
The government has 14 days to appeal the decision before the briefings become open to Freedom of Information requests.
“The secrecy, the cover-up, the resistance by Labor in blocking the release of these documents is disgraceful. Businesses slammed shut and families blocked from seeing loved ones are entitled to see the reasons behind their lockdown in full,” said David Davis, leader of the opposition in the Upper House. “It’s a scandal that these documents have been kept secret all the way through the pandemic.”
It is expected that the decision may prompt further orders to release additional secret information on the state’s other lockdowns. This information includes the rationale behind lockdowns, curfews, hospital visits, mandatory vaccination and other intrusive health orders that fundamentally changed the everyday lives of Victorians.
According to the Herald Sun, the Department of Health attempted to stop the release of material related to Covid health orders, indicating that the briefings risked jeopardising ‘public trust’ between public officials and a minister because they contained ‘high-level deliberative processes of government’.
They further argued that revealing this high-level health advice would impact the Department of Health’s ability to navigate future briefings with ‘appropriate’ advice.
This objection was overruled by the Victorian Information Commission, as Victoria's Covid health advice was seen to be of public interest.
“I consider there is significant public interest in providing members of the community the ability to participate in such processes and to hold governments to account for the decisions it has made,” said Public Access Deputy Commissioner Joanne Kummrow.
“In these circumstances, members of the community have a right to access documents that describe the background information considered, the reasons, the legal basis for, and documents that record those decisions.”
It is not the first time that a government has been reluctant to make public the health advice related to Covid directions.
National Cabinet was ordered to reveal their secret discussions between the premiers, the prime minister, and assorted health experts earlier this year and subsequently lost their appeal. Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to fight the decision, concerned that revealing the ‘accurate and candid information and ideas’ between members of the National Cabinet might erode public trust.
The COAG Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 is specifically designed to exempt National Cabinet from Freedom of Information requests in defiance of the court ruling.