By Finn McHugh originally published int he Canberra Times SEPTEMBER 27 2021

Phil Gaetjens has been lashed for “hubris or cowardice” by Labor after failing to appear before Parliament to explain a government to push to make key details on national cabinet inaccessible to the public.

A Senate inquiry began on Monday looking into a federal government attempt to override a court ruling finding national cabinet was not subject to cabinet-in-confidence exemptions.

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Phil Gaetjens failed to attend in person, with three first assistant secretaries were slated to appear in his stead. But Labor senator Tim Ayres said they had never attended national cabinet, and demanded to know why Mr Gaetjens could not appear that afternoon.

“Mr Gaetjens is the only person who has first-hand knowledge of the operations of national cabinet. Indeed, he is a principal architect of the bill that has been put before the Parliament,” he said.

“He’s led the department and the government to these humiliating defeat in the tribunal.

“This piece of legislation is an effort to … [put] the black hole of secrecy over Commonwealth state relations that have never been the subject of secrecy before. So it’s either cowardice, or hubris.”

Senator Ayres said the committee had been provided a letter from the department claiming Mr Gaetjens was travelling and unavailable.

But he claimed, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison having arrived in Australia overnight, and much of the committee conducted via videolink, there was no reason Mr Gaetjens could not given evidence this week.

“We either take our role seriously as a committee, reviewing this legislation, or we don’t. And Mr. Gaetjens is the principal architect of this. He’s also the most partisan department secretary in Australian history,” he said.

“I want to know whether this committee is going to stand up for its role as scrutinising pieces of legislation like this. That’s what the Parliament’s charged us with doing. We either to do it properly, or we squib it.”

Independent senator Rex Patrick, who successfully challenged the rule at the Administrative Appeals tribunal, said the ruling criticised the government for relying on hearsay and not the evidence of people who had attended national cabinet.

“This committee risks steering into danger if it doesn’t take primary evidence on the purported importance of the national cabinet, from the government’s perspective. And I think that we should be hearing from Mr Gaetjens,” he said.

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