It is seldom that a subject unites Labor National Leader Anthony Albanese, independent Senator Rex Patrick, and Malcolm Roberts of One Nation with such passion.
But all three have made extraordinary attacks on the Prime Minister’s department over the past week for insisting that national cabinet documents remain secret under FOI laws despite the government’s case regarding a case filed by Patrick in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal lost a case previous FOI request.
On Tuesday, Patrick escalated the dispute in the Senate, calling the ministry secretary Phil Gaetjens a “shame”, a “stooge” for Morrison and a “cover-up expert” over the alleged misuse of the exemption from cabinet documents.
Patrick also used the Senate to nominate two Department officials – Angie McKenzie and Hugh Cameron – who denied his freedom of information requests on national cabinet documents based on the controversial exception, which he believes boiled down to judicial Richard White’s decision being bureaucrats ignored the administrative appeals court.
The Morrison administration insists that the national cabinet be a subcommittee of the federal cabinet, although Judge White said in August at the AAT that the evidence he had in a dispute over an earlier motion by Patrick did not support that view. McKenzie’s decision, read by Patrick in the Senate last week, stated that it had designated the national cabinet as a subcommittee based on additional evidence not strictly required before the AAT in the previous case.
White cited, among other things, that national cabinet members âdid not feel obliged to support decisions made thereâ. The office did not appeal the decision.
In response to the decision, the coalition tabled a bill that specifically excludes national cabinet documents from the FOI but fails to pass it, but routinely blocks FOI requests based on Cabinet confidentiality.
In September, the national cabinet reiterated that disclosure of its documents and deliberations would “undermine trust between the Commonwealth and states and territories and prevent full and open discussions that would produce the best results for the Australian public”.
According to Senate estimates, department officials explained they were under no obligation to apply White’s findings to other FOI cases.
Deputy Government Secretary Stephanie Foster said White is making “decisions in a particular case based on the facts at his fingertips”.
The government’s first assistant secretary, John Reid, said the decision had “no precedent beyond the facts before it”.
“The department is absolutely not ignoring the White Justice decision,” he said. “The White Justice decision has been brought to the attention of all decision-makers.”
Nonetheless, “the government’s position remains that a national cabinet has been established … a federal cabinet committee,” he said.
The attitude irritated not only Labor and Patrick, but also Roberts from One Nation, who gave the Senate a concept on the 23rd â.
“The name sounds great, but it’s nothing more than a meeting of the prime minister and state and territory prime ministers and the prime ministers,” said Roberts.
Albanese, who has also tried to get national cabinet documents under FOI, told Guardian Australia the department’s decision to deny his application was “extraordinary” and warned that the prime minister’s department was “not above the law”.
“Mr. Morrison’s obsession with secrecy has undermined the law that protects the right of all Australians to information and, if left unchecked, jeopardizes other fundamental rights, “he said.
Patrick has been following the issue in the Senate for months, including seeking answers on how much the Department is spending on defending âunsustainableâ FOI decisions.
Patrick has also asked the Australian Information Commissioner’s office to send one of the denials to federal court for decision.
Last week and again on Tuesday, Senate Patrick accused McKenzie, one of the decision makers who denied one of his motions, of being a bureaucrat who thought it was “his responsibility to overthrow a judicial officer in favor of the opinion”. and interests of their political master â.
Patrick told the Senate that this was “either because of inadequate direction … or because the policymaker was setting her sails for the political wind”.
On November 26, Gaetjens and Australia’s Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott wrote to the Senate President complaining that Patrick had made “derogatory remarks” about McKenzie.
They said Patrick “abused” parliamentary privilege to make comments accusing McKenzie of politicized decisions which, if “taken in most other workplaces, could be termed bullying and harassment”.
“McKenzie is a highly respected and competent professional officer and behaves with the highest standards of integrity,” they said.
“As Ms. McKenzie’s employer, we strongly oppose the unjustified and offensive statements made by Senator Patrick and ask Senator Patrick to withdraw these comments.”
On Tuesday, Patrick accused another decision maker in the department, Cameron, of “what was effectively a pro forma ruling” to claim cabinet secrecy over national cabinet documents to which he had requested access.
“Some may think that it is unconventional for me to come into the chamber and start appointing civil servants – but within the government they break conventions that are far more harmful,” he said.
Patrick said that Gaetjens “did not run the civil service in a highly professional manner” and “liked to act as the prime minister’s henchman to cover up all kinds of sins and corruption in the government”.
He said Gaetjens is a “cover-up expert helping the Prime Minister send all kinds of filthy secrets and sins to the government committee of the cabinet to be buried in the vaults of the national archives for the next 20 years”.
Senate Prime Minister Simon Birmingham said Patrick’s remarks were an “extraordinary display” and a “politicized attack” against officials.
Birmingham said MPs should respect that civil servants are not elected or civil servants and they should not single out and question their motives.
âIt was perfectly appropriate for the secretary [Gaetjens] to try to protect officials from being drawn into inappropriate political debates. “
The Prime Minister’s department said in a statement, âPM&C has completely denied the latest allegations made by Senator Patrick. These persistent personal attacks on APS employees remain unjustified and untrue. “
Guardian Australia asked Gaetjens, McKenzie and Cameron for comments.