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Senator Rex Patrick Tackles Australia’s Prime Minister On Covid-19 Secrecy

Patrick’s legal team has fronted a tribunal to fight Morrison’s view that cabinet can deny the public access to Covid-19 advice.

CANBERRA, Australia — Australian prime minister’s lawyers resist independent senator Rex Patrick’s demand for the public to see the medical advice behind the national cabinet’s decisions on the pandemic response.

Andrew Berger QC informed the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on May 19, and it was irrelevant that there’d never been a federal cabinet before.

He argued the paper trail to and from the committee of Australia’s prime minister, premiers, and chief ministers must be exempt from freedom of information laws.

Presiding officer Federal Court Justice Richard White is considering whether the national cabinet can remain exempt from the laws intended to support free and open government.

Five hours into proceedings, Justice White was allowed to see the primary evidence about a decision being made to set up the federal cabinet, rather than hundreds of pages of material from which various inferences could be made.

A man wearing a protective mask walks past an official medical advice advertisement by the Australian Federal Government regarding Coronavirus (Covid-19) in Pitt Street Mall, Sydney. (Dean Lewins/AAP Image)

He had asked how it could be determined the document was relevant if he couldn’t read it, prompting its swift delivery to the courtroom for his eyes only.

But the crucial document remains off-limits for ordinary Australians and Senator Patrick.

“That thing we know as a cabinet is not changeable just because of the desire of the prime minister of the day,” said Geoffrey Watson SC, for Senator Patrick.

He said it was “preposterous” that, for example, Queensland could determine policy for the Australian Capital Territory — both being represented in the national cabinet.

Watson also rejected the “expert” statements from prime minister’s department Secretary Phil Gaetjens and First Assistant Secretary Leonie McGregor, saying it was opinion verging on “Dorothy Dixer.”

The prime minister has long argued that national cabinet discussions, including medical advice on borders and vaccinations, must be kept secret.

Any paperwork marked “cabinet-in-confidence” is cloaked in tight secrecy, which currently shrouds all advice to the federal cabinet, the emergency Australian Health Protection Principal Committee of top health officers, and the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission of business leaders.

Senator Patrick says it is arrogant of the prime minister to be “unilaterally and unlawfully wrapping a secrecy blanket” around decisions.” That thing we know as a cabinet is not changeable just because of the desire of the prime minister of the day,” said Geoffrey Watson SC, for Senator Patrick. Watson also rejected the “expert” statements from prime minister’s department Secretary Phil Gaetjens and First Assistant Secretary Leonie McGregor, saying it was opinion verging on “Dorothy Dixer.”

No date was set for the next hearing. The case continues.

(Edited by Vaibhav Vishwanath Pawar and Ojaswin Kathuria)