Senator Rex Patrick wants the upper house to hold an inquiry into the future of Australia’s federal system of government, to ‘learn the lessons’ of the COVID-19 pandemic and deliver accountability to the public.
Patrick has been a longstanding critic of the government’s measures to shield national cabinet decision-making from public view. The Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet (DPM&C) has also sat squarely in Patrick’s line of sight.
The senator, who is re-contesting an upper house seat for South Australia in the federal election, said a new government term was the perfect opportunity to examine the ‘unprecedented actions’ of political leaders during the pandemic.
“We need to ensure that federal-state government relations are properly transparent and accountable to parliaments and the public,” Patrick said in a statement on Monday.
“We need to look ahead to see whether the current, ad hoc machinery is fit for purpose and delivers fair outcomes for all Australians, especially the smaller states and regional and remote Australia.”
Patrick said the choice at the start of the pandemic by federal, state and territory government leaders to replace COAG with the national cabinet model was an ‘ad hoc crisis-management arrangement’ operating under a ‘cloak of absolute cabinet secrecy’.
“Information that was previously accessible under Freedom of Information and parliamentary processes is now denied,” Patrick said.
“This state of affairs has involved an unprecedented erosion of long-established principles of ministerial responsibility and parliamentary and public accountability for federal, state and territory governments.”
No matter who won Saturday’s election, Patrick said, the efficacy of the national cabinet (which last met in March) needed to be reviewed.
He said it was time to reset what had become an increasingly acrimonious relationship between the federal, state and territory governments and the decision-making group could not hide behind FOI laws anymore.
Transparency matters were essential for all decisions concerning infrastructure investment and ensure all Australian voters had access to essential transport, telecommunications, health and social services, the senator added.
“False claims of cabinet confidentiality should not be used to stymie scrutiny of vast swaths of public administration including decisions that directly impacts on millions of Australians,” Patrick said.
Patrick said a comprehensive senate inquiry which received evidence from the federal, state and territory governments was necessary to move beyond ‘partisan and parochial self-interest’.
“Whoever forms the next federal government after the election needs to spend a lot more time on reforming the system than working out which marginal electorates they want to spray taxpayers’ funds at.
“The federal system is currently failing many parts of Australia and we must fix that,” Patrick said.
“If re-elected to the senate I’ll be putting in the hard yards to make a difference on this,” he added.