In March 2020, in response to the pandemic, the Council of Australian Governments met and made the decision to form a 'National Cabinet' made up of the Prime Minister and all state and territory first ministers to coordinate the response to COVID-19 in Australia.
The Prime Minister also announced the establishment of the
'National COVID-19 Coordination Commission' with commissioners selected by the Prime Minister.
This chapter examines the coordination and communication of the pandemic response at the national level, including:
the effectiveness of the National Cabinet; and
the effectiveness of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC), which on 27 July was renamed the National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board (NCCAB).
Box 7.1: Interim finding
Despite claiming the protection of cabinet processes, the National Cabinet has not functioned in accordance with longstanding Westminster conventions on cabinet government in relation to collective responsibility and solidarity.
The Prime Minister's public criticisms of certain state premiers' decisions (school closures and internal border measures) fractured the national response and created unnecessary public confusion and anxiety.
The Australian Government has improperly applied cabinet conventions to avoid transparency in relation to decisions made by the National Cabinet.
The National Cabinet was announced on 13 March by the Prime Minister in a joint press conference with all premiers and chief ministers. According to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPM&C), it was to operate under longstanding conventions of Cabinet government, including the guiding principles of collective responsibility and solidarity.
Since March 13, the National Cabinet has been used to coordinate the health response across state boundaries and allow input on nationally important decisions, particularly about the public health responses and the economy.
Some of the decisions made and issues addressed by the National Cabinet during the early months of the pandemic included:
decisions on social distancing measures;
receiving confidential briefings from the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Treasury Secretary and the head of the Productivity Commission about the economic recovery;
managing a process for commercial and residential tenancies and a moratorium on evictions;
commissioning a National Review of Hotel Quarantine and adopting its recommendations;
agreeing numbers for caps on international arrivals; and
establishing the Mental Health National Cabinet Reform Committee.
Under Australia's federal system of governance, many of the key decisions made by the National Cabinet fell under the states and territories' areas of responsibility. These included declarations to enforce social distancing measures, school closures, moratoriums on evictions and operational responsibility for the health system.
The Australian Government (government) continued to be responsible for international border and quarantine measures, and the national economic response to the pandemic.
Perhaps as a result of the fact that National Cabinet met virtually during these months, the Prime Minister was often the first spokesperson following these meetings and provided information about matters which fell squarely within the management of the various state and territory governments.
The Prime Minister effectively acting as first messenger from the meeting created problems with the consistency of information and the accuracy of advice being presented to the public.
Considering the heightened health anxiety across the community, along with the hundreds of thousands of Australian workers losing their jobs, public interest in these press conferences was extremely high.
The Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 (committee) believes that mixed messaging, particularly during March and April, and at times unhelpful interventions into state matters by the Prime Minister (school closures and domestic border issues), worked to undermine the purpose of the National Cabinet and unnecessarily increased confusion and anxiety across the Australian community.
At times, the Prime Minister singled out individual states led by Labor premiers for criticism over decisions to impose internal border measures. This fractured the national response, fostered unnecessary partisanship and ultimately led to a breakdown in the National Cabinet as a consensus body.
The committee is also concerned that the government has used the National Cabinet as a vehicle to avoid transparency over its decision making.
By August, the Prime Minister acknowledged that the National Cabinet would no longer operate as a consensus body. However, the government has continued to assert that all deliberations of the National Cabinet are subject to longstanding Westminster conventions protecting them from disclosure. The committee does not accept this claim and will continue to seek access to documents previously denied to the committee on the basis that the National Cabinet was protected from disclosure from its status as a committee of the Federal Cabinet.
Communication around the need for school closures
On 13 March, the Prime Minister indicated that decisions around school closures 'would be made by the states and territories', but would be based on a consistent national approach.
On Sunday 22 March, immediately prior to a National Cabinet meeting, the New South Wales (NSW), Victorian and Australian Capital Territory (ACT) governments pre-emptively announced that its schools would close from Tuesday, 24 March and transition to online education.
After the National Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister announced that, '[a]ll leaders agreed that children should go to school tomorrow', directly contradicting the previous announcements by state and territory governments.
The ACT Deputy Chief Minister, Yvette Berry MLA, later tweeted that the ACT Government's decision 'won't change' and 'I don't know why the PM suggested otherwise'. Victoria also proceeded as planned and brought school holidays forward. NSW Premier the Hon Gladys Berejiklian MP announced the following day that NSW schools would remain open, but that 'for practical reasons, parents are encouraged to keep their children at home'.
In a hearing on 25 June, Dr Swan cited this incident as an example of a contradiction which had confused people through mixed messages.
Internal border measures
In late March, five states and territories imposed border measures on interstate travel. Tasmania was the first mover, with Premier Gutwein announcing that from 20 March, all non-essential travellers to Tasmania would be required to quarantine for 14 days. This was followed with similar announcements from the Northern Territory, South Australia, Western Australia (WA) and Queensland.
In late May, the Prime Minister criticised these border measures, claiming that 'the expert medical advice at a national level never recommended internal borders within Australia' and that 'it's not good for the economy'.
The Prime Minister's commentary implied there was no medical basis for these restrictions. However, on 21 June Deputy Chief Medical Officer
Dr Nick Coatsworth clarified that 'the AHPPC actually hasn't had a position on border closures' and that 'we will continue to leave that to state first ministers'.
When Queensland and South Australia announced on 30 June that they would not reopen borders to Victoria over concerns about increasing community transmission, the Prime Minister made critical remarks through the media, suggesting 'you can't just shut Australia up every time there's an outbreak'.
Despite South Australia and Tasmania also implementing strict domestic border control measures, the Prime Minister reserved his harshest criticism in public comments to the Premier of Queensland and the Premier of
On 10 September, the Prime Minister initiated what the Queensland Labor Premier described in Parliament as a 'coordinated campaign' in which he 'intimidat[ed]' and 'bull[ied]' her.
The Prime Minister later noted that it was 'hard to draw any … conclusion' other than that Premier Palaszczuk's decision to refuse a particular exemption application for a person to enter Queensland from the ACT was 'inhumane'.
Whilst there were thousands of heartbreaking cases across Australia of families separated and unable to be together due to domestic border restrictions, it is unclear why the Prime Minister chose to single out the Queensland Premier in the way in which he did. It is possible that the Queensland state election, held at the end of October, may have influenced the Prime Minister's comments.
One month later on 8 October, the Prime Minister described Labor Premier McGowan's decision to keep the WA border shut as 'not the Australian way', accusing him of 'locking people in the state so they [wouldn't] spend money in other parts of this country'.
On 12 June, the Prime Minister and his Attorney-General decided to join
Mr Clive Palmer's case in the High Court against the WA border measures. The Prime Minister rejected a direct plea from the WA Premier to discontinue the government's intervention in Mr Palmer's case.
The Prime Minister later changed his position on 1 August but failed to provide any justification other than that he 'didn't want there to be any anxiety in Western Australia', suggesting his chief concern was popular opinion in the state.
This change in position came immediately after the case had been heard, with the government actively considering changing its mind while simultaneously arguing its position against WA's border measures in the High Court. Information about the cost of this intervention has not been provided to the committee despite requests for it.
On 11 August, Acting Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly said that WA's border closure 'has no doubt been somewhat protective', indicating that the Commonwealth understood that domestic border closures had prevented the spread of the virus. In light of this statement it is concerning that the Prime Minister was openly pushing premiers to open up their borders despite their local health advice not to do so.
In the end the illusion that National Cabinet was a consensus-making body with solidarity amongst members collapsed and on 4 September, in a press conference about state border measures the Prime Minister said National Cabinet 'needed to evolve' because 'we've decided that this notion of 100 percent, absolute consensus on any issue is not a way that the National Cabinet can indeed work'.
The Prime Minister's criticism of state border measures and partisan attacks on Labor premiers undermined the ability of National Cabinet to work as a Westminster-style cabinet exercising solidarity and collective responsibility. The committee sees this as a failure of leadership from the Prime Minister at a time when the country desperately needed genuine cooperation rather than partisanship and division.
National Cabinet as a vehicle for secrecy
On multiple occasions the government has refused to provide information relating to the National Cabinet, including:
the date National Cabinet first agreed to a suppression strategy;
briefings to National Cabinet from the Treasury Secretary and the Chair of the Productivity Commission; and
whether any ministerial or parliamentary staff, or members of the Australian Health Principal Protection Committee had attended National Cabinet meetings.
The government justifies the level of secrecy provided to National Cabinet meetings on the basis that it has been constituted as a 'Cabinet Office Policy Committee'.
However, when asked about this in a hearing the Secretary of DPM&C,
Mr Philip Gaetjens, could not explain some of the inconsistencies in this position. For example, as a committee of the Federal Cabinet, National Cabinet should require full Cabinet endorsement of certain decisions. When the asked by the committee if this was the case, DPM&C failed to directly answer the question, instead providing an unhelpful reference to the Cabinet Handbook which, at the time, made no mention of National Cabinet.
Following the Prime Minister's announcement on 4 September that National Cabinet would no longer be a completely consensus-driven body, the Chair requested that DPM&C and the Department of Health reconsider its previous decisions to refuse the committee access to important information. To date, neither department has changed its position.
The committee is concerned that the government has improperly claimed the protection of cabinet when refusing access to requested information. The government cannot apply these rules in relation to non-disclosure unless it also intends to accept the rules in relation to collective responsibility and solidarity which, from a public statement by the Prime Minister, it clearly is not prepared to do.
The National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board
Box 7.2: Interim finding
The $6.5 million National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board lacks transparency, has access to cabinet documents without commensurate accountability, has not released any work publicly, and has failed to demonstrate how conflicts of interest are managed for commissioners.
Considering the significant public expenditure on the National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board (NCCAB), the committee recommends that the Australian Government make all reports of the NCCAB public, along with all declarations of actual and perceived conflicts of interest made by commissioners.
The NCCC was announced by the Prime Minister on 25 March 2020 to 'coordinate advice to the Australian Government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the global coronavirus pandemic'.
Four months later on 27 July, the Commission was renamed the NCCAB without any real explanation other than that the new arrangements would facilitate the NCCAB's engagements with the confidential workings of the Federal Cabinet.
Considering the $6.5 million cost and the public interest in the work of the NCCAB, the committee finds the NCCAB to be unnecessarily secretive and opaque. Requests from the committee for a list of its reports to government have been refused, along with a request for a draft report of the manufacturing taskforce–a version of which has already been leaked to the media.
Of additional concern is that the NCCAB has operated with limited oversight and appears to report directly to the Prime Minister.
According to DPM&C, the proposal for the NCCC originated in the
Prime Minister's office and DPM&C only became aware of the proposal on
19 March–six days before its establishment was publicly announced by the Prime Minister. DPM&C also provided no advice to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) on the capacity of the Australian Public Service to coordinate the COVID-19 recovery or if there was any need for the NCCC.
The NCCAB operated for some time without any terms of reference. After being announced on 25 March 2020, it held its first meeting two days later. However, terms of reference for the NCCAB were not published until 1 May.
Whilst it is unclear who recommended the establishment of the NCCAB, it is clear that the commissioners were chosen by the Prime Minister and were not appointed by Cabinet. There was no independent process for considering the appointments and, according to DPM&C, it never provided any shortlist of potential commissioners to the PMO.
The expertise and commercial backgrounds of the commissioners has raised significant concern about actual, perceived or potential conflicts of interest. The Chairman of the NCCAB, Mr Neville Power, has remained throughout his role as Chair a director of Strike Energy and the Perth Airport Corporation. Mr Bao Hoang, a more recent appointment, maintains an interest in an
aged-care allied health organisation which holds a significant federal aged care contract in relation to COVID-19.
DPM&C was unable to clearly explain the role of Mr Andrew Liveris, who continued to serve as a director of Saudi Aramco while chairing the NCCAB 's manufacturing taskforce. A leaked interim report from the taskforce recommending gas subsidies raised serious concerns. However, DPM&C told the committee that Mr Liveris had not initially been required to follow the same conflict of interest process as commissioners because he was not a commissioner but rather an 'appendage'. It is unclear how the term 'appendage' in the context of public sector governance is defined, as it is not a commonly-used term.
Mr Gaetjens told the committee that the commissioners 'have gone through a rigorous declaration of-interests process'. However, the government has refused multiple requests from the committee for more information on these disclosures on the grounds of the commissioners' personal privacy.
Considering the $6.5 million price tag for the NCCAB and the unusual access it has to cabinet processes, the committee finds this refusal to provide information and accountability to the Senate unacceptable.
According to DPM&C, staff working for the NCCAB have full access to relevant Cabinet documents and regularly brief commissioners on these.
The NCCAB also appears to have been influential in providing input to the Prime Minister on the government's overall communication strategy.
On 15 May the NCCAB published a limited tender contract for market research with Mr James Alan Reed, a former researcher with the polling firm Crosby-Textor, for $541 750. A redacted version of Mr Reed's research brief released under FOI includes the 'effectiveness and credibility of spokespeople' and 'awareness of and attitudes towards government measures'.
On 20 October, DPM&C confirmed that the results from Mr Reed's research had been provided to the PMO. However, it refused a request by the committee for Mr Reed's 'series of reports' on the basis that this would 'inhibit the ability of DPM&C' to provide advice and coordinate communications. Considering the significant expenditure on these contracts the committee finds this refusal to provide information to the Senate on the use of public funds unacceptable.