Senator Rex Patrick is your typical independent Senate crossbench ambulance chaser. Having been carried into parliament on the long-receded Nick Xenophon tide, he is driven to prove his usefulness as a tribune of the people, purple-prosed press releases and all.
But in taking on the Morrison government over the confidentiality of National Cabinet records, the soon to be ex-senator has done us all a worthwhile service.
Patrick sought access to National Cabinet documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act. Access had been denied him on the basis these documents were those of a cabinet sub-committee, and therefore privileged.
He appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, where a Federal Court judge, Mr Justice Richard White, ruled in his favour. White J’s conclusion was simple: a federal cabinet sub-committee is a federal committee of cabinet members. Premiers and chief ministers aren’t federal cabinet members. Ergo, documents pertaining to National Cabinet don’t relate to federal cabinet, so sic ‘em, Rex.
The upshot is this. The body that has dominated our lives for nearly the last year and a half has no special status whatsoever.
As we’ve seen over and over again, National Cabinet’s real role is political. It gives the illusion of unity behind which the Prime Minister, premiers and chief ministers shelter whenever it suits them. Yet it allows those premiers and chief ministers to do their own thing, at their own pace yet send the bill for each lockdown and border closure – as well as the political responsibility – to the relatively impotent feds.
It may have had its uses in the earlier stages of this pandemic, but what National Cabinet represents is like the Ottoman Empire in its death throes; the centre gives the illusion of being in charge, but the provinces under the own warlords, caliphs and satraps do their own thing with impunity.
Senator Patrick won’t get his documents. If it appeals and loses, the Morrison government (or an Albanese government, if it comes to pass) simply will legislate the protection with Opposition support. But we should thank him for at least highlighting the political and administrative deception that this arrangement is, and the irreparable damage it has done to our strong-centre federalism.
Rather than protect and defend his National Cabinet creation, the Prime Minister should concede that it has long since served its purpose, lead it gently to the back paddock, and then put it out of its misery.
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