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PM’s culture of creeping secrecy: how a flight to Sydney confirmed his aversion to disclosure

The Father’s Day flights broke no rules. Morrison has been cooped up like others but he has a job unlike others. He has to travel and qualifies for exemptions to do it. He did not need special treatment to go to Sydney. The Labor chief minister in the Australian Capital Territory, Andrew Barr, merely gave him an exemption to return to Canberra for work.

Did it pass the pub test? Well, that always depends on who is in the pub and how many pints they’ve had. Morrison did not cross a blockade he had imposed on others. Throughout the pandemic he has been on the side of easing or removing border controls, not toughening them.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese had a bet each way. Labor wanted the flights exposed but left it to frontbenchers such as Kristina Keneally, Bill Shorten and Richard Marles to go on the attack. Albanese held back, saying he would not criticise Morrison for wanting to see his family.

While it looked like a Labor split, it was really just a way of keeping the leader above the dirty work. It did not fool Morrison or those around him. Morrison and Albanese do not get along and their contest will get more personal as the election nears. (Next year, not December).

Morrison may recover from his allergic reaction to scrutiny over time. That would probably help him and his government, if the lessons from overseas are any guide. When researchers in London conducted “exit interviews” with former British ministers, several said the discipline of accountability meant they did a better job.

This was a message from both the Labour and Conservative sides, said the Institute for Government. Former ministers believed scrutiny helped avoid “far greater slip-ups” down the road.

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What if the JobKeeper program had included a public register for big companies taking taxpayer money? That might have stopped people taking money they did not need. Only later did it emerge that $13 billion went to companies that increased their turnover – an astonishing feat in a country that used to consider a $10 billion surplus a real achievement.

Government departments can treat requests for information as an affront. It took Labor three months to unearth documents under freedom-of-information law about the government’s negotiations with Pfizer last year. Labor backbencher Ged Kearney lodged the request on June 4 and only received the documents on September 1.

The Department of Health found six documents and made redactions to four of them. Access to the other two was completely refused. This is a significant change from a more enlightened time when Labor’s John Faulkner allowed greater FOI disclosure during the Rudd government. (Yes, Rudd lost power, but not because of that.) The trend of the past decade has been towards greater secrecy, longer delay and more devious ways to hide documents.

This has reached a point where the government has a bill before Parliament to hide the work of national cabinet and duck a decision by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal that states the obvious: that national cabinet is not a part of federal cabinet and should not have this status and protection under FOI law.

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Calls for a national integrity commission to combat corruption, meanwhile, are met with assurances without action. The government has made no effort to amend its bill for an integrity commission and heed proposals in Parliament to create a watchdog with stronger powers.

“It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up,” is an old saying journalists like to use with every political scandal. But Morrison’s trip to Sydney is no crime, nor is it a scandal. A prime minister’s flying visit to see his wife and daughters is the least of the country’s problems in the middle of a pandemic.

The problem is the culture of creeping secrecy. That is a cover-up worth worrying about.

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