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The Senate committee probing the Morrison government’s management of the pandemic has excoriated the government for deploying public interest immunity claims to “wilfully obstruct access to information crucial to the committee inquiry”.
The second interim report by the committee, tabled on Wednesday night, lays out “multiple instances” where important information sought by the committee during the inquiry had been withheld by government on grounds of public interest immunity.
The chair of the committee, Labor senator Katy Gallagher, declared the blocking conduct needed to be called out because the current generation of senators “must stand up for the powers and purpose of the Senate”.
“This Senate will outlive all of us, and it falls to us to stand up and protect what is clearly a conscious attempt by a secretive government to whittle away the powers of this Senate, which have been clearly established over decades,” Gallagher said.
“We cannot allow the Senate to only receive information that is politically convenient for the government to provide – to accept the government’s approach as outlined in this report of withholding key information from public view”.
Gallagher said if the committee accepted the public interest immunity claims, that would “erode and undermine the Senate’s power of inquiry”.
The committee has rejected a claim made by the attorney general, Christian Porter; two claims made on behalf of the health minister, Greg Hunt, by Michaelia Cash, the minister representing Hunt in the Senate; two claims made on behalf of the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg; a claim made by the former aged care minister Richard Colbeck; and a claim made by Anne Ruston, the minister for families and social services.
The second interim report says: “Taken together, these claims have compromised the committee’s ability to scrutinise government decisions with a profound impact on lives of Australians.
“The committee is concerned that they reflect a pattern of conduct in which the government has wilfully obstructed access to information that is crucial for the committee’s inquiry.”
The rejected public interest immunity claims relate to government legal advice about the CovidSafe app, health data modelling about scenarios for coronavirus infections, the dates of particular government decisions and deliberations, including in relation to fortifying the vulnerable aged care sector, advice about the impact of Covid-19 on the aviation sector, a presentation by the chair of the Productivity Commission to national cabinet and advice to government on the reintroduction of the liquid assets test for certain Centrelink payments.
Liberals on the committee have not dissented from those findings.
In additional comments, the Liberal senator James Paterson notes that officials have provided significant cooperation with the Senate inquiry, including supplying 2,000 answers to questions on notice throughout this period – “a remarkable feat of cooperation and transparency especially when considering [officials] did so while managing the day to day fight against a once in a generation global pandemic and associated economic crisis”.
“The relatively few disagreements between the committee and the government about a handful of public interest immunity claims should be viewed in this light,” Paterson says.
The first interim report of the Senate inquiry released in December found a range of deficiencies in the response and concluded the national health strategy was not clearly explained to the public until July.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Covid committee condemns ‘secretive’ Morrison government for withholding key information | Australian politics