John Menadue. Pink batts and the Royal Commission – a bridge too far.

Feb 10, 2014

There are good grounds for Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard to refuse to provide documents to the Royal Commission on Pink Batts. The Royal Commission is a very vindictive act by the Abbott Government. And the government looks like continuing to use other Royal Commissions for political purposes!

In separate blogs by Michael Keating on January 8, 2014 and by me on July 11, 2013, we have pointed out the following.

  • 1.1 million installations were completed under the Home Insulation Scheme (HIS) – a considerable achievement.
  • The rate of fires during this scheme was three times less than prior to the HIS.
  • The regulation of programs such as this, including safety, is clearly in the hands of state governments, not the Commonwealth.
  • Only 7% of installations had to be rectified – a quite low figure.
  • One fatality was caused by a pre-existing fault; another was caused when an electrical installer was employed by another electrician, and a third death occurred when a contractor elected to work in oppressive heat.

But beyond these issues which the media and The Australian in particular, ignored, there is an important issue of whether the Royal Commission should have access to Cabinet documents. Media reports suggest that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard may refuse to provide Cabinet documents.

There is an important principle in the Westminster parliamentary tradition that new governments do not rifle through the documents of a previous government. This is set out very clearly in the Cabinet Handbook issued by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in the name of the Australian Government. (7th edition, 2012). Paragraphs 17 to 19 say the following:

  • Cabinet records (files) are held on behalf of a government in the care and control of the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM & C) and are issued to ministers and departments on a need-to-know basis. Once a minister or department no longer has any immediate need of them, and, in any event, when the minister vacates office or a change of government occurs, any copies of Cabinet documents must be returned to the Cabinet Secretariat or destroyed.
  • The convention is that Cabinet documents are confidential to the government that created them and not the property of the sponsoring minister or department. Access to them by succeeding governments is not granted without the approval of the current parliamentary leader of the appropriate political party.
  • Cabinet records and cabinet notebooks are accessible to the public through the National Archives of Australia after the expiration of the statutory closed period. The closed period, which for Cabinet documents currently varies between 20 to 30 years, seeks to provide the best balance between the competing priorities of, on the one hand, the need to safeguard privacy, security and confidentiality of the Cabinet, and to use available resources to best effect, on the other hand, maximising public access to records.

I would expect that the Secretary of PM & C would now be advising the Abbott Government that the Cabinet documents relating to the Home Insulation Scheme (pink batts) should not be released.

When Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister at the end of 1975 he was being urged by party colleagues to release documents of the Whitlam Government relating to the ‘loans affair’ – a matter of far greater moment than pink batts. Some members or supporters of the Liberal Party had commenced legal action in the court in Queanbeyan against the former PM and and former senior ministers. Despite the opportunity to make more political mischief, Malcolm Fraser refused to have the documents released.  In my autobiography ‘Things you learn along the way’, page 173, I wrote ‘[Malcolm Fraser] was … persuaded that it was unwise for one government to be raking through the documents of another government and that if the matter came to court the Commonwealth Government should refuse to release them’. I was Secretary of PM & C at the time.

It is one thing for parties to make political mischief in Opposition. In Government, they need to act more responsibly and with due regard to the established government and parliamentary conventions that have stood the test of time.

Where there was a good case for a Royal Commission would have been for the Rudd and Gillard Governments to initiate a Royal Commission into how Australia became involved in the disastrous Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Fortunately, neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard chose a Royal Commission to settle a political score.



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