Thursday, 14 May 2020
Questions without Notice
COVID-19: Freedom of Information
My question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister representing the Prime Minister. Is it not the case that, in the course of January, the Prime Minister received at least five purportedly secret briefings from his department on the coronavirus outbreak? Is it not the case that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has refused to release any of those five briefings? Is it not the case that access under FOI has been totally refused—not one word has been released? Given the government's declaration that it would be completely transparent with the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 and with the Australian public, will the Leader of the Government in the Senate consult with the Prime Minister and seek the prompt release of the briefings to better inform the investigation of the select committee?
It won't surprise Senator Patrick to hear me say that, in relation to the specific items he's raised, I will have to take that part on notice, as I am not personally aware of all of the details that he has read out. In terms of the general point, I would put it to Senator Patrick that this government is being entirely open and transparent with the COVID committee—the senate select committee that is a COVID response by the government—in a way that is consistent with the usual rules, conventions, processes and standards applied by previous governments. Certain matters are exempt from disclosure—for example, things relating to the deliberative processes of cabinet. But, subject to those qualifications, of course I'll take on notice what Senator Patrick has asked about and I'll return to the chamber with that when I can.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has delayed FOI decisions on the release of DFAT cables sent from our embassy in Beijing in January reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak in China. It's also the case that the health department has moved to obstruct FOI releases of the initial coronavirus modelling in assessments received by the government on 13 February and 3 March. Given the public interest in fully understanding these events, will you take on representing to the relevant ministers— (Time expired)
Again, I don't think it will surprise Senator Patrick to hear me say that, in terms of the specifics, I will take that on notice. I am not aware of the specific FOI requests he raises. Senator Patrick would also be aware that there are laws that provide for how these matters are to be handled, and there are appropriate review processes in place. I know for a fact that he extensively takes advantage of these processes and opportunities that are available to him, but I will take the specifics of that question on notice.
The government has rightly called on China to be more transparent about the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak. The government also wants the World Health Organization's performance to be scrutinised. Wouldn't these calls on China and the World Health Organization be much stronger and much less exposed to the charge of hypocrisy if the government itself implemented full transparency about its own response to the pandemic?
Again, our government is highly open and transparent as appropriate, bearing in mind relevant national interests and legal considerations in the same way as governments of both political persuasions have done in the past.