Wednesday, 17 March 2021
COVID-19 Select Committee; Order for the Production of Documents
I'm a member of the COVID committee and am absolutely appalled that the government hides behind public interest immunity. I'd also remind the chamber that it's not the first time that this has happened in very recent history. We don't have to go far back to work out when it occurred—robodebt. It was repeatedly used there, and they refused to provide the Committee on Community Affairs with the information that we were very justified in asking for, about their decision-making around robodebt. I'm using that as an example not to prosecute that argument yet again but to show that this government keeps hiding behind cabinet-in-confidence arguments again and again. As Senator Gallagher has just said, wheeling a trolley through the cabinet with some documents piled high on anything that the Senate might ask for is not appropriate. This isn't the first time the government has been hiding behind cabinet-in-confidence or public interest immunity.
I'd argue very strongly that there's not a cabinet-in-confidence argument against telling us. One of the questions that they refuse to answer is how they determined the Coronavirus Supplement rate. How did they determine it? Wouldn't you think it was in the public interest to know that? I tell you what, I'm really interested to know, because it's very important for the debate on the legislation that we'll have later in this chamber, probably tomorrow—rushed through, and we'll no doubt get a motion on hours, where they'll then of course include the guillotine and try to gag debate on the government's appalling rate of increase to JobSeeker, which the legislation that will come before this chamber sets at just $25 a week. When the Coronavirus Supplement was doubled, this Senate supported and agreed with it. The government knew that people couldn't survive on $40 a day. We wanted to know, quite justifiably, because it was a COVID response, how that rate was determined. No, they won't tell us. We also asked for the modelling on the JobSeeker payment. No, they won't tell us.
We asked for the modelling around the stage 2 tax cuts. No, they won't tell us. We asked when cabinet was first briefed by the Chief Medical Officer—an absolutely fundamental question. No: 'It's secret; we won't tell you.' You have to ask: what have they got to hide? It's a really simple question that Australia has the right to know the answer to. Why not tell us?
We also asked: when did the minister for aged care, Minister Colbeck, brief cabinet on the aged-care issues that we plainly saw roll out in this country? Nuh, he wouldn't tell us. We also asked how often the minister for aged care had briefed cabinet on the aged-care crisis—and not one person here could deny that we had a crisis—but did he tell us? No. Apparently that's secret too. How many times? When did he recognise that we had a crisis on our hands? When did the government know that Australia had a crisis in aged care on its hands? We don't know, because he won't tell us. He wouldn't tell us. The government won't tell us. Oh, that's right—it's cabinet-in-confidence! How often did he brief? When did he brief? When did he attend cabinet? When did the government know? It tells us how urgently, and when, they started responding to the crisis. No, they won't tell us.
We also asked about child care. We all know that in the heat of the crisis last year there were amendments made to payments and to how we approached child care. They won't provide the modelling for why they then changed their mind and ended that particular approach. They won't provide that and they won't provide the parameters on JobKeeper.
They won't provide the information on when cabinet decided that Australia was going for a suppression approach to COVID rather than an elimination approach to COVID. These are all questions that are very legitimate questions for the COVID committee. They are part of our work. The committee was charged by this place to do this work, but the government won't provide that information. They are key bits of information for the committee to do its work, and not just for us to do our work but for broader Australia to know. But, no, it's cabinet-in-confidence. As has been discussed in this chamber before, we don't accept those claims. This is information the committee should have access to and Australia should have access to.
I'll go back to the issues around the coronavirus supplement. Those were very important decisions that the government made. They were happy to take the Australian community's support for it and its welcoming of it, but they're not happy to tell us how they came to the rate. That is appalling. Australia has a right to know how we decided on that rate. Having access to that rate has made a lot of difference to Australians who are unemployed, so I argue very strongly that we have a right to know how that rate was arrived at. It was so important and it is so important. But of course the government don't want to release that information, because they know it will make an absolute mockery of the lousy 25 bucks a week, $3.57 a day—I challenge people to find somewhere in this country where they can buy a cup of coffee for $3.57—that they are going to ask this place to pass within 24 hours or—it may be a bit longer depending on whether we get an hours motion—36 hours.
This information is important to this country and it should be made available.