The head of the Australian Medical Association has said that secrecy rules should not “automatically” apply to national cabinet documents and deliberations.
Omar Khorshid made the comments ahead of Anthony Albanese’s first meetings with the state and territory leaders on Thursday evening. Friday’s meeting will deliver major changes to the intergovernmental body, including a greater productivity reform focus.
Before the election, Albanese was critical of national cabinet secrecy. He also promised to reform the federal cabinet by adding local government.
Scott Morrison excluded local government when he transformed the Council of Australian Governments (Coag) into the federal cabinet in March 2020 in the early stages of the Covid pandemic.
The Morrison government claimed the federal cabinet was a subcommittee of the federal cabinet, allowing it to block releases of documents under freedom of information laws, even after it lost a case on that point brought by Senator Rex Patrick in the administrative appeals tribunal.
Albanese has argued that Coag was better at federation reform and convening ministers’ meetings to discuss productivity reforms, suggesting on Thursday those features “have just disappeared” under Morrison’s national cabinet model.
Khorshid said Coag “was pretty frustrating for those who experienced it”.
“One of the great things about the national cabinet, when it was first opened, as it allowed our states and commonwealth to work together quickly to effect change,” he said in Canberra. “Of course, emergency measures are not appropriate for a reform agenda over many years.
“We do need to go back to having the appropriate processes,” he said, such as a “reform commission”.
Khorshid said governments “take secrecy a little bit too seriously”. “Australians have a right to know what is being discussed, and want to know what is being discussed at the top table.”
He said governments do need to keep “some discussions away from the public eye for some time” to prevent a headline “kill[ing] off a good idea far too early”.
“But in general, we should always fall on the side of transparency,” he said, encouraging “open discussions about the state of our health system, open discussions about reform options”.
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Khorshid rejected the Morrison government’s practice of exempting national cabinet documents from FOI laws, arguing we should not assume the federal government’s cabinet rules apply to the federal cabinet.
“It is a replacement for Coag; you’d expect the same level of secrecy that applied to Coag to [apply to] a future replacement for Coag,” he said.
The federal cabinet is so secretive that its documents are confidential to the government that created them – meaning the Albanese government has not had access to Morrison-era records.
Morrison erected hurdles in the cabinet handbook in the event of a change of government, requiring the secretary of the prime minister’s department and cabinet to consult the opposition leader, as a representative of the previous government, before releasing documents.
Earlier Thursday, Albanese would not be drawn on how he will reform the federal cabinet, saying he would discuss it with premiers and chief ministers tonight.
“I haven’t participated in those processes up until today. I will work those things through cooperatively,” he said, promising to re-examine “the whole way that the process functions”.
“Part of that will be, I want to see how we can involve local government; I will discuss that with them tonight, as I will discuss how we progress into the future.
“We need to lift productivity in this country. One way that we lift productivity is through microeconomic reform.
“And I have foreshadowed with the premiers and chief ministers that is something that I want to discuss as well, how we get that driving through of that reform, how we get better national consistency, how we remove some of the duplications which are there as well. All of that has just disappeared.”
The South Australian premier, Peter Malinauskas, said he was “open-minded” about reforming the structure of the federal cabinet and was “very interested” to hear Albanese’s proposal.
“Certainly, I think there is a role, if not an urgent need, for seamless collaborative engagement between the states and commonwealth, regardless of political persuasion,” Malinauskas said.