Thursday, 18 June 2020
COVID-19 Briefings; Order for the Production of Documents
by leave—I take note of the ministerial statement relating to COVID-19.
I thank the minister for responding to the order for the production of documents. This was an important request from the Senate. As chair of the Select Committee on COVID-19, we've been spending a lot of time when the Senate's not been sitting, scrutinising the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and, particularly, the health and economic responses. As part of that, we have been seeking information from the government that helps us to perform that scrutiny and accountability role that the Senate has asked us to do. We have been at times, I think it's fair to say—and members of the committee would support me on this—frustrated by the lack of willingness of our government and, through them, the public service, to provide us with key documents and information that would assist us in our role. Obviously, this is an extremely unprecedented situation, and the economic and health responses have been significant.
The government is taking a very much—I won't call it business as usual; in fact, it's an approach that seeks to project that they are allowing scrutiny while, at the same time, denying key documents that would actually allow us to effectively do this job. I'll give you a couple of examples; I have quite a lot of them now. We are collecting the answers to questions on notice. Roughly about 30 per cent of those are coming in with the usual tricks of: 'This can be found here;' 'This information isn't published' or some bland answer that doesn't actually answer the question you asked; or 'This information would take too long to find, so we're not going to provide it.' We've got the usual standard public service responses which I get. They're used and applied, where possible, to reduce the work that they have to do but also the scrutiny that non-government committee members are able to apply.
There are two in particular. One of them was the modelling and scenario work undertaken by the Treasury on the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is key information about understanding the decisions the government took and why, and what impact the Treasury thought it would have on the economy, particularly now with the unemployment figures that we're seeing, the unprecedented number of people on jobseeker—1.64 million was the last official figure we got through the committee; double, in two months, the people who were there before.
We know there are 3.3 million on JobKeeper. We know unprecedented amounts of taxpayers' money is flowing to support the economy at the moment. Yet we cannot see those key documents that explain the effect and impact of that expenditure—of taxpayers' funds, not this government's funds—in the economy and what the government was hoping the expenditure would do. Our ability to scrutinise and assess whether what the government intended to do is actually happening is being restricted by this information not being provided.
The other matter is this bizarre situation we find ourselves in where I asked a question simply out of interest: when did the Chief Medical Officer first brief the cabinet? I asked it in one of the first hearings, in early April, and I was surprised at the response, which was, 'Well, we'll take it on notice'—eventually. It was a very nervous-looking senior Public Service response. Certainly, with the culture from the top down in the Public Service, it's very clear that public servants are worried, and I feel for them. I think they are in a difficult position if they're basically being told not really to help the committee with provision of information but to do what they can around the edges. When we home in and ask for particular information, I can see how nervous senior public servants get and how worried they are about whether they're crossing this line that the government has set for them.
So the Chief Medical Officer, who was the actual person who did the briefing, takes it on notice to check the diary—fair enough; no problem. We get an answer back: 'No, that information basically is cabinet in confidence.' They'd taken advice from Prime Minister and Cabinet. They'd referred that question, and Prime Minister and Cabinet had obviously confirmed that it was cabinet in confidence and no-one could have the date—the single date. It was not what was said, not who attended and not which subcommittee it was; it was just the date. At that time, part of the committee's work was looking at those early decisions and how they flowed through and lining that up next to what we were seeing in Australia in terms of the numbers of cases and how they were flowing, so it was key information for the committee.
So PM&C says no, and then Health say no again. So then the head of PM&C comes before the committee. I say, 'Well, can you provide us with this date?' Surely the date the Chief Medical Officer briefs the cabinet is not top secret or classified—unless, of course, the Chief Medical Officer never briefed the cabinet. Maybe that's the territory we're in. So the head of the Public Service takes it on notice and then writes back to the committee and says, 'No, the date that this event happened is top secret.' So then I refer it to the minister, who appeared representing the Treasurer, and the minister takes it on notice and comes back.
So this secret briefing that was provided, which I would have thought would be information that could be provided to the committee, has now gone through this laborious process, lasting two months, and we still haven't got it. So the Senate orders that information to be provided. This is where we've got to: we've had to bring it out of the committee, into the chamber, and ask the Senate. We've won the support of the majority of the Senate for that information to be provided, and we get this response today: 'It's cabinet in confidence'—the date the Chief Medical Officer briefed the cabinet. I would have thought it would be a date that this government would have been very proud of and very able to provide to the committee and the community, but no.
It is interesting. Senator Cormann has this proud history. He even has a motion named after him, the Cormann motion, which goes through the process for claiming public interest immunity and the grounds for public interest immunity. It was strengthened by Senator Cormann and agreed to by this place—a pretty detailed motion—and here we have Minister Cormann now, in government, with a completely different view of how you claim public interest immunity. There is no real explanation of the public harm that would be caused by providing this—just the usual blanket claim, 'It's cabinet in confidence.' Basically, you could take every document in the Public Service that has anything to do with COVID and walk it through the cabinet room, and no-one will have any information.
These are key documents that we're after. We're not being unreasonable. PowerPoint presentations that the Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer give at press conferences are not provided to the committee. They are not available to the public. They are given to the media but not available to the committee. You can't find them anywhere. You've got to basically watch the press conference and snap a photo of the slide in order to get it. It's really impossible and ridiculous if we've got the government, on one hand, saying they want the scrutiny, they welcome the scrutiny, and, on the other hand, playing silly games where the committee is being denied information that should be available to it. Indeed, they are not even giving the Senate the courtesy of abiding by the Cormann motion about the process and the grounds for claiming public interest immunity.
I know it's the end of a long week and we could all do without 10-minute speeches and the rest of it, so I'm going to wind up. But as chair of this committee I do want to place this on the record. We will continue to bring things back to this chamber and seek the support of this chamber to make sure that the work we do on the coronavirus pandemic and the government's response to it, work that the Senate has actually asked us to do, is of the standard and quality that should be demanded by this place. And I'm saying that that work, at the moment, because of the government's lack of willingness to provide key information—we've even asked for it in camera, and the response is basically 'no, that information won't be provided in camera either'—is severely hampered by the attitude that this government is taking. And it's extremely unfortunate, because we keep hearing from them how great they have done and how everything has gone really well, considering the circumstances, but they won't provide the information. If we were in a position where we had some of the information on the government's announced economic response, not the options they got—we know they would have been given options; we are not after that—but what they actually decided and what underpinned that, but even that is not being provided to the committee. It's unreasonable, it's hampering our ability to do our work and we will continue to bring it back to this place until the government starts cooperating.
I also take note of the response that the minister just tabled. You've got to ask yourself why the government isn't providing this information. Why won't the government tell us when they were first briefed by the CMO? What conclusion can you draw other than that there's something that they are hiding, something they don't want to tell the broader community? I'm a member of this committee, and the committee has been very diligent in its work. We've been holding two hearings a week basically since the committee started. So it's been very diligent about its work. It's a pity the government isn't being as diligent about providing the information that we ask for—also about the levels of accountability that it is requiring of itself and the people on the COVID-19 Coordination Commission, which the government set up, who aren't properly declaring their conflicts of interests and certainly aren't making those public. This is a commission with not only a large number of people from the fossil fuel industry but also people who have ongoing interests in the fossil fuel industry. They will not release publicly their conflicts of interest, and that directly relates to the work that our committee does—so that we can have a full understanding of just what is driving some of the recommendations that appear to be coming out of that commission.
In the hearing that the COVID commission appeared before the committee, the second one, when I asked for their final interim report, it wasn't available. I asked when it would be publicly released—not available. So just when is this vital information about our so-called recovery going to be made public?
That takes me to the issue of where the government is at with jobseeker. Yesterday we heard the minister not tell us precisely, which answered my question very clearly. She waffled around. Will it go back to $40 a day? It was obvious from the waffly answer that the government intended it to go back to $40 a day. Overnight, two media outlets—not just one but two—just happened to run the same story about a permanent increase in jobseeker, which quite clearly the government had released, because it stretches the bounds of credibility that two different outlets would run stories on a permanent increase to jobseeker without having been tipped off.
It makes me wonder if the government is worried that it is coming under a lot of pressure because Australians know that jobseeker is ending at the end of September. That means they won't be able to pay their mortgage, they won't be able to pay their rent and they won't be able to pay their essential services bills like electricity and water, let alone buy food. We know from lots of research—and also from the committee telling us—that, when you're trying to survive on $40 a day, food is discretionary, so that's often at the bottom of the list, and people go hungry. So the government wants to make it seem like there will perhaps be an increase in the jobseeker payment.
That's why I asked that of the minister today—for the community members and people who have lost their jobs and are staring down the barrel of that cliff at the end of September. They clearly want to muddy the waters out there by putting out a story that jobseeker may be increased—and then, when they were asked, they said, 'Don't believe what you read in the media.' Quite clearly, what the community should take from that is that the government is still intending to drop them down to $40 a day at the end of September. I say to the community: if you think that sucks, get onto the government, get onto your local members, get onto your local senators and tell them that it sucks and that it is simply untenable to live on $40 a day.
Question agreed to.