'At best lazy and at worst a deliberate abuse': Govt accused of hiding COVID information

Labor senator and committee co-chair Katy Gallagher says a report into the government's use of public interest immunity claims should
Labor senator and committee co-chair Katy Gallagher says a report into the government's use of public interest immunity claims should "never have been needed to be written". Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The Senate committee investigating the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has slammed the government for refusing to release key information, such as when the chief medical officer first briefed cabinet on the emerging virus.

Ministers have made public interest immunity claims seven times in the face of information requests from the committee, all of which have been rejected, with the Senate demanding answers by March 17.

"Taken together, these claims have compromised the committee's ability to scrutinise government decisions with a profound impact on lives of Australians," the unanimous committee report said.

"The committee is concerned that they reflect a pattern of conduct in which the government has wilfully obstructed access to information that is crucial for the committee's inquiry."

Information requested includes the date when Professor Brendan Murphy first briefed cabinet on COVID-19, how the coronavirus supplement amount for Centrelink recipients was decided, and modelling on the decision to end free childcare.

"The government's repeated misuse of public interest immunity claims as a basis for withholding key information from the committee is at best lazy and at worst a deliberate abuse of the public interest immunity process," the committee said.

Presenting the report, Labor senator and committee co-chair Katy Gallagher said it should "never have been needed to be written".

"If we fail to stand up for the Senate's power of inquiry, the Senate will become a toothless tiger that gets spoonfed only the information that the government wants to feed it," she said.

"That is not how our system is meant to operate."

Senator Gallagher said the refusal to hand information to the committee was a symptom of a wider problem, and it was clear public servants were protecting ministers.

"We have seen public servants, who clearly know the answers to questions, refuse to answer before being reminded of their obligations to the Senate, and then they refer the matter to the minister for consideration," she said.

"There are other ways outside the [public interest immunity] claims that the government routinely denies public access to information: rejecting freedom-of-information requests, giving late or evasive answers to questions on notice and refusing to comply with orders for the production of documents."

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The Coalition senators on the committee - James Paterson and Perin Davey - did not submit a dissenting report but rather additional comments, pointing out the bipartisan nature in which the committee had been established, and just how many times departments had appeared at hearings and answered questions on notice.

"The committee has received nearly 2000 answers to questions on notice throughout this period, mostly from government departments - a remarkable feat of co-operation and transparency, especially when considering they did so while managing the day-to-day fight against a once-in-a-generation global pandemic and associated economic crisis," Senators Paterson and Davey wrote.

"The relatively few disagreements between the committee and the government about a handful of public interest immunity claims should be viewed in this light."

Access to information has been an ongoing issue for the committee, with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet singled out for having a large number of overdue questions on notice, and pharmaceutical company CSL refusing to appear at a hearing because its executives were too busy with vaccine production for a 45-minute hearing.

CSL is now due to appear at the COVID-19 committee on Tuesday.

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This story 'At best lazy': Govt accused of hiding COVID information first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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