You call that a cabinet?

There are two overriding beliefs that guide Scott Morrison as prime minister: the first is a belief in secrecy, and his right to it when making decisions; the second is Morrison’s belief that his saying something makes it true.

This is not the same as lying. It’s a more exotic relationship with the truth, a kind of transubstantiation of the facts, where a thought the prime minister has had can be turned into the truth by saying it aloud.

There was a hint of this in the recent scandal over commuter car parks, the gross misuse of public money to win marginal seats with funds that were unmoored from even the most basic of proper processes. Replying to the National Audit Office, the Department of Infrastructure employed Morrison’s logic: “There is precedent established … that a media announcement by the Prime Minister constitutes relevant authority to progress a project.”

This recalls Richard Nixon’s famous, flawed defence: “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

Morrison has been exploring the edges of this principle since taking office. He has ruled more by delegated legislation than perhaps any other prime minister – the little known “Henry VIII” clauses that allow decisions to be made that circumvent the oversight of the parliament.

Morrison’s tendency is to fiat. He centralises power. In his previous roles, he has been criticised for overlooking process. He is always in a hurry. He explains later.

On Thursday, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal took apart a key plank of this. A ruling by Justice Richard White found Morrison’s national cabinet is not entitled to the secrecy provisions he has claimed for it. Just because he says it is a cabinet doesn’t make it one.

The decision is temperate and scathing: “I am satisfied that none of the subject documents is an official record of a committee of the Cabinet and accordingly exempt from production …”

In essence, Morrison has claimed for more than a year that every decision of national cabinet is bound by the same, special confidentiality as the federal cabinet. He has maintained that it is exempt from freedom of information laws. The truth is it is not. It is no more special or protected than a meeting of the Council of Australia Governments, the tea and biscuits gatherings held between the states and their federal counterparts.

Morrison’s insistence of this status has obscured the decisions he has made about how Australia faces the pandemic. It has denied access to information and lessened the scrutiny on his own work.

For 18 months, the body responsible for the country’s response to coronavirus has operated on a false pretence. Its whole framework is ersatz. It has been guided by Morrison’s belief that saying something is real makes it so. It takes a moment to appreciate how outrageous this is: Australia faces one of the worst crises in modern history, and its prime minister is misrepresenting the terms by which he makes decisions related to it.

Senator Rex Patrick, who took the case to the tribunal, calls Morrison’s declarations arrogant. He says it’s a question of democratic principles. “Mr Morrison cannot just make things up as he goes along to suit his political interests and convenience.”

This last point is right, although for 18 months that is exactly what has been happening.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 7, 2021 as "You call that a cabinet?".

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