Cabinet paper release 'key' to democracy

·2-min read

Previously secret documents containing some of the top cabinet discussions from prime minister John Howard's 2001 cabinet, have been made public.

The documents span landmark moments in Australian history including the 9/11 terrorist attack and Tampa affair and cover a wide range of government decisions that would subsequently form policy foundations for decades to come.

The National Archives of Australia routinely release about 250 cabinet documents, from 20 years prior, to the public each year. The latest stack were made public on Saturday.

Why, two decades later, are they important?

"Democracy," historian Christine Wallace says.

"One thing that history does show is that accountability is a crucial tool.

"This is a crucial accountability characteristic of healthy high functioning democracies - the ability to check the paperwork against outcomes, albeit with a 20-year lag."

Cabinet documents detail the meetings of the government's most senior ministers and it's where policy decisions are made.

Its also entails the national security committee of cabinet tasked with defending Australia's security and national interests.

The documents typically include submissions from ministers, comments from government departments on proposed policies, attachments with background and relevant details as well as records of what decisions were made.

Dr Wallace says the public revelation of such material "should lead to better decision making if not least through better transparency inside a cabinet".

"It also enables us to know whether the government was even doing the necessary paperwork for good deliberations and decision making on vital issues of the day".

Some of the documents or contents of particular submissions are withheld due to national security concerns.

But the larger picture painted by a year's worth of deliberations on top of previous releases allow historians to build a more complete picture of Australian governments and history.

And this year's major story of how Mr Howard managed to turn around his poll woes and clinch the 2001 election against all odds highlights exactly that.

His government's pivot to Australia's national security needs in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Tampa crisis provided the uptick needed to retain government.

The flow-on effects of policy decisions and deliberations on immigration policy and a focus on national security became an epoch for border and counter-terrorism policies for decades into the future and likely decades to come.

It's been said Prime Minister Scott Morrison is taking a leaf out of the Howard playbook as he frames the 2022 federal election through a lens of China fear and strong border policies to distract from poor domestic polling.

Insight into political tactics and what influences the mindsets of politicians decades later is why the broader picture becomes important.

A repeat of history two decades later is exactly what Mr Morrison is looking for.

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