Scott Morrison appears to have held hundreds of meetings of a secret cabinet committee – of which he was the only permanent member.
The then prime minister set up the cabinet’s secret policy committee in 2019.
According to Freedom of Information data obtained by The Guardian, there were 739 sets of meeting minutes from July 2 of that year to April 11, 2022.
Critics, including his successor Anthony Albanese and former Senator Rex Patrick, argue that the ‘committee-of-one’ allowed Mr Morrison to hold official meetings with anyone and keep them under ‘blanket of secrecy’ for 20 years.
Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison (pictured with wife Jenny) held hundreds of meetings he can keep secret thanks to a committee of which he was the only permanent member
What the vast majority of those meetings were about – 665 – is largely a mystery.
Mr Morrison set up the committee after asking his ministers to do ‘deep dives’ into their portfolios, including consultations with interest groups such as companies, to uncover policy areas that needed to be addressed.
Former Finance Minister Mathias Cormann confirmed he was the “permanent” member of the committee at a Senate estimation meeting in 2020.
Cabinet meetings in Australian politics are confidential.
But Mr Albanese said Mr Morrison declaring the COPC a cabinet committee resulted in “every meeting he he could say, “Ah, that was a meeting of this cabinet committee of which I was the only member.”
Penny Wong of Labor and Patrick described it as ‘abusing the process’.
‘A committee of one is not a committee… It enabled Mr Morrison to meet everyone, including his gardener, and wrap a 20-year-old secrecy blanket over what was discussed,’ Mr Patrick said.
Former Senator Rec Patrick (pictured) said the committee allowed Mr Morrison to hold meetings with anyone on policy issues and discussions that were kept secret
The Administrative Appeals Board ruled in 2021 that the prime minister had no reason to extend cabinet secrecy to new committees.
The former government argued that Mr Morrison had the power to “determine what a cabinet committee was.”
BJudge Richard White disagreed that any prime minister could circumvent the freedom of information law through that logic.
A Freedom of Information Request from the guardthis week revealed the eyebrow-raising frequency of COPC meetings.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC) said the “documents requested, [comprise] 739 minutes from the former government’s COPC.
A court recently ruled that national cabinet discussions can fall under freedom of information because the prime minister cannot simply decide that a committee falls under cabinet confidentiality
The spokesman said some meetings may be double with several people taking notes, but even taking that into account, the CPOC appears to have met hundreds of times.
Of the 739 sets of COPC minutes, the department agreed to release six national cabinet meetings — which had been released earlier — but declined the request for the remaining 733.
Any decisions or recommendations from the COPC still had to go through the normal cabinet and parliamentary procedure.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, Victoria’s Prime Minister Daniel Andrews and Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a 2020 national cabinet press conference (pictured)
Morrison defended the COPC through a spokesperson who said it allowed for more “focused, effective and dynamic discussions.”
“Many meetings have been held across the full breadth of federal government policy responsibilities. The COPC process proved very effective and practical in working with complex policy issues.
‘The process is modeled after the [national security committee] and [expenditure review committee] process, where officials and experts participate in these discussions to aid in the discussion of policy development.’
Mr Morrison is already under fire after it was revealed that he had secretly given himself the powers to act as Secretary of State for Health, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Resources, Home Secretary and Treasurer in 2020 and 2021 – a move which was criticized from all sides of politics for being undemocratic.
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