Rex Patrick and PM Fight Over Secrecy Around COVID-19 Medical Advice

May 19, 2021 Updated: May 19, 2021

Independent Senator Rex Patrick has challenged the Morrison government in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal over its alleged secrecy around national cabinet decisions on the COVID-19 response.

Patrick believes that the National Cabinet is not properly constituted and that the Prime Minister is “unilaterally and unlawfully wrapping a secrecy blanket” around the government’s COVID-19 response.

Currently, the National Cabinet has an exemption from the Freedom of Information (FOI) Laws as a “cabinet” has the entitlement for a “class exemption.” This mean’s that all medical advice to the national cabinet, the emergency Australian Health Protection Principal Committee of top health officers and the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission is shrouded in secrecy.

Speaking to ABC radio on Wednesday, Patrick said that he thought the Morrison government’s decision to call the weekly meeting a cabinet was counterproductive. It functions more like a council—which can release its documents to the public depending on the content.

“I actually say it’s counterproductive to keep information secret from the public,” Patrick said. “I want to see how they came to the strategy they did of purchasing particular vaccines, how they decided what the rollout was. What was the rationale behind the lockdowns?”

“The more you inform the public, the more confidence they have,” he said.

rex patrick senator australia
Rex Patrick speaks in the Senate at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on July 4, 2019. (Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Patrick added that information on topics such as commercial arrangements or the capability of the Australian Defence Force should “of course be protected.”

The prime minister’s lawyers are resisting Patrick’s demand for Australians to see the medical advice driving decisions on borders, lockdowns, vaccinations, school closures, the aged care death toll and failures in disability.

Andrew Berger QC argued at the Tribunal on Wednesday it was irrelevant that there’d never been a national cabinet before Scott Morrison set it up last year.

“The national cabinet is a committee of the cabinet because it operates like one,” he said.

Placing those discussions as confidential under cabinet practices also allowed candid discussions in these “exceptional times”, he said.

Justice Richard White, who is overseeing the case, has reserved his decision after the all-day hearing.

AAP contributed to this article.