Senator Rex Patrick says he “very carefully” considered whether to criticise public servants under parliamentary privilege and won’t apologise amid the prime minister’s department continuing to condemn the personal attacks this week.
Patrick, who had two FOI requests for national cabinet minutes rejected by PM&C last month, has now requested the information commissioner, Angelene Falk, refer the matter to the Federal Court on the grounds further FOI requests are going to become an administrative burden.
The senator is in a war of words with PM&C over the documents, with Patrick arguing an Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision by Justice Richard White earlier this year proved the national cabinet documents were not protected by cabinet in confidence provisions and should be public.
PM&C disputes this, arguing the tribunal doesn’t make binding decisions in the same ways as a court, leading Patrick to launch a blistering attack on public servants under parliamentary privilege over the department’s interpretation of the law.
“It is just rubbish from the department to suggest that [AAT] decision has no weight,” Patrick told The Mandarin.
He also points out the Department of Home Affairs appears to have a contrary position on granting FOI requests for national cabinet documents, with Patrick receiving briefing documents on emergency management weather risks last week.
His comments in the senate included claims that PM&C secretary Phil Gaetjens is “covering up all manner of sins and corruption” and criticisms of senior officers being “incompetent” and “politicised”.
When asked about his conduct, Patrick said he saw it as “measured as a proper counterweight to the egregious conduct of the department”.
“When you sit inside an organisation like PM&C you are protected by very thick firewalls. You are protected by the prestige of the department. It’s entirely appropriate for me as a senator for South Australia to call out that misconduct,” he said.
PM&C disagrees, with Gaetjens and APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott condemning the behaviour in a letter to the Senate’s president, and Gaetjens using an end-of-year address this week to tell public servants the behaviour should be called out.
“I will always call out the inaccuracies of these types of comments and reiterate the importance of our impartial and committed public service,” the PM&C secretary said.
“I have always tried to put the systems in place or institutionalise things that make the public service stronger, that support the values of the APS and empower us as public servants to give frank advice within a respectful workplace.
“Collectively and individually, we should always call out behaviours which undercut these values.”
Patrick says his move was not rash and believed he respected when parliamentary privilege should and shouldn’t be used, adding he did “not intend to apologise to anyone”.
“It was carefully considered as a response to something I am deeply offended by,” he said.
“I think the public service does a wonderful job and I think most public servants perform their functions in a highly professional manner. That’s where my disappointment lies, is that the people involved in this are very senior and in the premier department of the federal government.”
If the national cabinet documents are made public, Patrick is unsure exactly what they will reveal, however he believes the minutes he is seeking could “work as an index for other material that was put before the national cabinet” to build a picture of decisions made during the pandemic.
“Ultimately I want to get to the point where people can see what it is the AHPPC said to national cabinet about vaccinations, school closures, hot spots, lockdowns and border closures,” Patrick said.