Wednesday, 17 June 2020
COVID-19 Select Committee
Earlier a postponement notification was circulated to my notice of motion No. 680. I would like to seek leave to now move that motion. I thank other senators and apologise for the inconvenience.
That the Senate—
(a) notes that:
(i) on 8 April 2020 the Senate unanimously supported the establishment of the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 to inquire into the Government's response to the pandemic,
(ii) the Leader of the Government in the Senate told the chamber on 8 April 2020 that "we do believe there is a need for scrutiny" and that "it is very important to have in place a committee of the type that is being proposed",
(iii) the Government has refused to provide the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 with important information relevant to its inquiry including:
(A) modelling and scenario work undertaken by Treasury on the Government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and
(B) the date the Chief Medical Officer first briefed Cabinet on COVID-19, and
(iv) in relation to each of the examples in paragraph (a) (iii):
(A) the Government has asserted that it cannot provide the relevant information because it pertains to Cabinet,
(B) the Government has failed to make a public interest immunity claim in relation to the information sought,
(C) in particular, no attempt has been made to identify any specific harm to the public that would result from disclosing the information, and
(D) the Committee has reiterated its requests for information and, in the case of the Treasury modelling, did not accept the Department's answer;
(i) the resolution of the Senate of 16 July 1975 relating to the powers of the Senate and the accountability of witnesses and requiring that any claim to withhold information from the Senate be based on an established ground,
(ii) the order of the Senate of 13 May 2009 (the 'Cormann order'), which sets out the process to be followed for witnesses, including ministers, to raise public interest immunity claims, including by stating the grounds of those claims and the harm that might be occasioned by providing the information, and
(iii) the principle that information may only be withheld following consideration by the Senate of a properly founded claim of public interest immunity, as laid out in the Cormann order and reaffirmed in orders of the Senate of 22 September 2020, 10 February 2011, 3 March 2016, 11 October 2016, and 12 September 2017; and
(c) orders the Minister representing the Treasurer and the Minister representing the Minister for Health to provide the information identified in paragraph (a) (iii) to the Senate Select Committee by 12 pm Thursday 18 June.
It's a longstanding practice not to disclose information about the operations and business of the cabinet and its committees, including when a matter went to cabinet, who attended and what form of submission was provided, as to do so could potentially reveal the deliberations of the cabinet, which are indeed confidential.
We support this motion. The people of Queensland and of Australia deserve to be treated with respect and to have confidence that the government's serious and far-reaching decisions taking us through the COVID scare are based on credible and robust data. The government's huge economic response is based on the Doherty institute report. It seems that is in turn based on the flawed assumptions of Professor Ferguson, Imperial College, London, and I am deeply concerned as to the validity of the data and concerned about decisions made on that basis. Professor Ferguson's modelling predictions are known to be wildly exaggerated and fanciful. His work has had devastating impacts on national economies. Yet his assumptions are cited as the basis for the Doherty report. I refer to the model description where baseline values and more were obtained from Imperial College in London. The government should release Treasury and health department modelling and scenario work as the basis for blowing $320 billion.
I'm very concerned that we see things like Treasury modelling, which is used to inform the Treasurer, having a claim of cabinet-in-confidence made over it. It seems the government is spraying cabinet sprinkle dust right across a whole range of decision-making, which, basically, denies the Australian public the ability to scrutinise and to participate in our democracy. It's really important that we have openness and transparency in relation to these matters. I remind the government that the Prime Minister is at liberty to waive any genuine privilege in relation to cabinet documents so that the Australian population can see the basis upon which decisions were made by the government.