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Saturday mornings are for tranquility, so I feel compelled to issue a warning. Brace for righteous rage about a government that really doesn’t like being accountable for anything very much. But let’s journey to our destination gently with a pandemic story illustrating the point.
When the Australian parliament adjourned in March last year because of the pandemic, the Senate select committee investigating the Morrison government’s response to the crisis assumed institutional importance beyond the normal stature of a parliamentary inquiry. With the parliament officially in hiatus, the Senate select committee on Covid-19 tracked and interrogated the response in real time.
It’s easy to forget this now, but when the committee began its work, the magnitude of the threat to lives and livelihoods had shocked Australian politics into uncharacteristic displays of emotional intelligence. There was a collective instinct to be constructive and, as a consequence, the process of scrutinising the Covid-19 response began in promising spirit.
Senators lauded that opening spirit of cooperation in a new report tabled this week. But as Australia tracked out of the first wave, the government began to suppress its accountability impulse.
This week’s interim report from the committee didn’t get much attention. It was soundly buried by the moral force of the Brittany Higgins story and the bully-bro tantrum in Silicon Valley that the Morrison government grabbed like a political life raft. But it supplies a number of proof points for the accountability aversion thesis.
Here’s one example. Since May last year, the committee has been attempting to extract legal advice provided to the attorney general’s department on the interaction between the legislation underpinning the Covidsafe app (remember that old thing?) and US legislation known as the Cloud Act.
The Cloud regime allows law enforcement in the US to compel technology companies to hand over stored data both domestically and internationally. The committee asked officials for an assurance that the data collected by the Australian app could not be accessed by US law enforcement via the Cloud Act regime.
The department confirmed it had legal advice going to that very point, and promptly invoked legal professional privilege. Because “serious concerns ha[d] been raised by the technology industry and peak legal bodies in relation to the safety of Covidsafe data”, the committee regarded that legal opinion as significant evidence.
“The provision of the legal advice would permit the committee to independently assess whether the Cloud Act could allow US authorities to compel Amazon Web Services to hand over Covidsafe data under a warrant,” the report says.
“It is also critical for the committee to scrutinise the evidence informing a key government decision.” The report references a number of other comparable examples of material being withheld.
Before you conclude this is just the dance of the parliamentary committee – the abstruse Canberra ritual where Labor senators on Labor-controlled committees waggle their fingers censoriously and government senators issue dissenting reports decrying politics-as-usual – understand one thing.
This was a joint report. The Coalition senators crafted some separate diplomatic formulations expressing gratitude for general cooperation to soften the blow, but they didn’t demur from the core criticism that the government is invoking public interest immunity claims to avoid reasonable scrutiny.
Having steered myself calmly through that prelude, it’s time to warm up.
From the sturdy platform of government senators noting politely that their own government could be more accountable, we can move to adjacent examples from the week.
Peter Dutton, the home affairs minister, faced a number of legitimate questions about when he knew about the rape allegations levelled by Higgins, the former government staffer, given police are obliged to keep their minister in the loop about sensitive investigations.
My colleague Chris Knaus asked Dutton’s office to respond to basic queries three times on Tuesday. He was ignored. Not “no comment”. Or “we can’t address that right now”. Or “someone will get back to you when we have an answer”.
Just no answer at all. Stony silence.
Striving to be fair as well as accurate, we waited a full day for a response before making the decision to report that Dutton had declined to answer. Apparently colleagues from other media outlets chasing the same, entirely legitimate, lines of inquiry, experienced a similar stonewall from the Dutton office.
The Higgins story isn’t trivial. It’s about as a serious as it gets, and citizens of this country – the voters who send Dutton to parliament to represent their interests – have every right to expect prompt and honest answers to basic questions.
But what they got was smug, disdainful silence from a senior cabinet minister who wields significant power – a person who once aspired to be the prime minister of this country. The only reason we got answers was because parliament was sitting.
Not content with Dutton’s unabashed “up yours” to accountability, we had the besieged defence minister Linda Reynolds’ dogged stonewalling in the Senate out of respect for Higgins’ “privacy” (an obligation that her former staffer publicly released her from).
Despite many questions being put, we still don’t have many answers. Here’s two important questions that haven’t been answered about the staffer alleged to have assaulted Higgins: Did he leave Reynolds’ office with a termination payment? Did anyone in the government give him a reference, or help to find another job?
The government also appeared this week to prepare more ground for non-disclosure.
All week, Scott Morrison has declined to answer whether or not he will release a looming report from his departmental head. Phil Gaetjens has been asked by Morrison to check communications between his staff and Higgins. The purpose of the check is to verify that staff in his office didn’t know about the sexual assault allegations before 12 February.
While Morrison was deliberately Delphic about his intentions, the government leader in the Senate, Simon Birmingham, signalled to colleagues the various reports from the prime minister’s department are being prepared for cabinet deliberations.
It’s not immediately clear to me why a report stress-testing staff accounts would need to go to cabinet for deliberation. But in any case, if the Gaetjens advice is ultimately designated as a cabinet document, that means the public will only see it if Morrison chooses to release it.
My colleague David Marr has noted recently Morrison’s reluctance to be transparent dates from his “on water matters” days in the immigration portfolio. Marr noted during those days as immigration minister, with the “uncomfortable piece of set decoration” General Angus Campbell at his side – “neither man answered a single question that mattered”.
Marr rates Morrison as the best at not answering questions of all the prime ministers he’s seen. It’s not a compliment, and I know what he means. I’ve previously characterised Morrison’s populism as aerodynamic. Last year, I compared the prime minister to a stealth aircraft purpose built to avoid detection.
Morrison and the government he leads likes to be several steps ahead of any crunch point. The prime minister’s kinetic quality – the example that sets for the rest government, that deep cultural bias – is transparent to any voters paying attention.
But at some point, the strain of remaining aloft starts to show.
Avoiding encumbrances begins to look like effort rather than grace.
In the end, gravity, an immutable force, asserts itself.
Source: The Guardian
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