The Morrison government has moved to strengthen the level of secrecy around the proceedings of National Cabinet – including the meetings of energy ministers – proposing new legislative amendments that will ensure the National Cabinet is exempt from a range of transparency measures, including freedom of information laws.
The move will extend to the ‘sub-committees’ of the National Cabinet, including the Energy National Cabinet Reform Committee chaired by federal energy minister Angus Taylor.
The new legislation, which will define the National Cabinet as a committee of the federal cabinet under a range of transparency laws, including the Freedom of Information Act, is designed to ensure the National Cabinet is protected from public disclosure obligations.
The legislation comes as a response to a landmark ruling of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on a freedom of information request lodged by independent senator Rex Patrick, which ruled the National Cabinet was not covered by freedom of information exceptions, and documents relating to National Cabinet meetings should be disclosed publicly.
But the Morrison government has sought to effectively overturn this decision through the legislative amendments, ensuring the proceedings of National Cabinet, and its sub-committees, remain secret.
“Like the Commonwealth cabinet and its committees, all proceedings and documentation of the National Cabinet and its committees are confidential,” federal education minister Alan Tudge said when presenting the legislation.
“And like the Commonwealth cabinet and its committees, the maintenance of confidentiality is essential to enable full and frank discussion between the representatives of all jurisdictions.”
In response, Patrick described prime minister Scott Morrison as a ‘sore loser’.
“Having acted outside and contrary to the law with regard to National Cabinet secrecy, the Prime Minister now wants to change the law,” Patrick said.
“He’s a sore loser who does not accept long-established conventions of Cabinet responsibility and democratic accountability. He hates scrutiny and is allergic to transparency.”
The creation of the Nation Cabinet came at the same time as the abolition of the COAG system, including the COAG Energy Council meeting of energy ministers. The change has allowed the Morrison government to take greater control of the National Cabinet process – and in the case of energy reforms – as meant that little detail of what is discussed amongst energy ministers is known publicly.
While state and territory ministers often publicly vented their frustration about the lack of national action on climate and energy policy around meetings of the former COAG Energy Council, the new National Cabinet regime means ministers are bound by cabinet confidentiality rules and have since been largely mute about any dissatisfaction they may harbour about the proceedings of the new committee.
The Energy National Cabinet Reform Committee has taken oversight for the work of the Energy Security Board. Its secrecy requirements have resulted in key information about energy market reforms being proposed by the Energy Security Board being withheld from the broader energy market for weeks after reform recommendations were delivered to ministers.
Much of the energy market was reliant on leaked information as their main source of knowledge about the Energy Security Board’s post-2025 re-design of the National Electricity Market – which will amount to the most significant shake-up of the market’s design since its formation.
The control that Taylor wields over the energy committee also meant that the first official public release of information about landmark energy market reforms was first released to news outlets sympathetic to the Morrison government before it was released to the wider public.
The added protections being sought by the Morrison government will further prevent the release of information about meetings of the Energy National Cabinet Reform Committee – with the public left in the dark about even the agendas of meetings.
RenewEconomy has sought access to documents relating to meetings of the Energy National Cabinet Reform Committee on several occasions – as well as a wide range of documents relating to other government decisions through freedom of information laws, but access has been denied in most cases.
A recent review of freedom of information requests completed by the Grata Fund found that the Morrison government has often unlawfully blocked access to documents, undermining laws intended to support public transparency and accountability of government decisions.
The latest legislation looks set to be opposed by both Labor and the Greens. The Morrison government will likely be reliant on One Nation senators to pass the laws through the senate.