‘Vault Open’: Judge Rules National Cabinet Documents Not Confidential

By Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng
August 10, 2021 Updated: August 10, 2021

A judge has ruled that documents used by the intergovernmental national cabinet to make decisions around Australia’s COVID-19 response, are not subject to confidentiality.

Independent Senator Rex Patrick launched the legal battle after a failed Freedom of Information request to obtain documents outlining the minutes from national cabinet meetings.

Judge Richard White of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal ruled that the national cabinet was not part of the prime minister’s formal cabinet (or a “cabinet committee”), which includes federal members of Parliament and ministers.

This meant that it was not subject to the same confidentiality rules that would normally apply.

White stated that a key difference was that the national cabinet was made up of the prime minister, as well as state and territory leaders, each responsible to their own parliaments.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet was granted a 28 day stay on releasing documents and to give it time to decide whether it would appeal the decision.

The body was established in March 2020 in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia.

The meeting was designed to replace the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to coordinate the nation’s response to the pandemic.

Patrick called the legal decision a huge win for transparency and accountability.

“It was inappropriate, and it has been found to be unlawful,” Patrick told ABC radio on Aug. 6.

“The vault is now open. There are still protections in place. This is not carte blanche.”

Sensitive national security and commercial information were still protected under Freedom of Information laws.

Patrick is also considering FOI requests into the medical advice being provided to the leaders on the impact of lockdowns and border closures.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said he would leave it up to lawyers to look at the tribunal decision.

“The prime minister is very transparent in giving press conferences and answering many questions after every national cabinet meeting effectively,” he told reporters in Canberra last week.

“We’ll focus on the task at hand, which is working with the states and territories. The legal teams can worry about those issues.”

AAP contributed to this report.

Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng