The Administrative Appeals Tribunal has ruled that Scott Morrison’s National Cabinet is not covered by cabinet confidentiality because it is not technically a committee of federal cabinet.
Senator Rex Patrick brought the challenge.
A twenty-eight-day stay has been placed on the ruling to allow the government an opportunity to appeal.
If they fail, all documents related to National Cabinet will become accessible under Australia’s freedom of information laws.
“The mere use of the name ‘National Cabinet’ does not, of itself, have the effect of making a group of persons using the name a ‘committee of the Cabinet’. Nor does the mere labelling of a committee as a ‘Cabinet committee’ have that effect,” said federal court Justice Richard White, when handing down his ruling.
Part of the ruling recognised that members of the National Cabinet are not predominately federal ministers.
“It is not even comprised of persons belonging to the same government, let alone the same political party,” added Justice White.
This ruling is expected to trigger a wave of requests to access previously secret information related to National Cabinet’s decision making during the pandemic.
The news comes as a blow to Scott Morrison, who announced the National Cabinet in March 2020. He has long been criticised for attempting to extend secrecy.
During the proceedings, Commonwealth officials argued that disclosure risks revealing ‘accurate and candid information and ideas’ voiced between the members of the National Cabinet.
National Cabinet is comprised of the prime minister, state premiers, and chief ministers. It was created to deliver a coherent and consistent national response to the Covid pandemic. Despite this, the states have frequently been in open conflict regarding their management of outbreaks and lockdowns.
This decision is considered to be a victory for transparency.
“For almost 40 years Australians have had a legal right under the Freedom of Information Act 1984 to access information relating to intergovernmental meetings, subject only to a test of public harm,” said Senator Patrick. “He did not ask the Parliament to change the law, he just declared that National Cabinet to be part of the Federal Cabinet and as such exempt under the Cabinet secrecy exemption of the FOI Act. That arrogant declaration has now been overturned.”