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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Principle hard to find in Treasury decisions on access

If you are somewhat confused about disclosure of Federal Treasury advice on various matters, the following is a snapshot. It is hard to discern the principle that underpins Treasury assessments of what should be disclosed or refused access. That is of course unless you see a pattern of refusing access to anything likely to cause major inconvenience to the Government or Treasury, and releasing information that gives the Government a leg up.
  • Treasury refused access to most of the advice provided to the Rudd Government on the inflationary impact of the Government's industrial relations policy, in response to a Freedom of Information application from the ABC, as detailed here. Concern about public confusion and unnecessary debate featured in the reasons. The Treasurer was stretching things when he said it had nothing to do with him.
  • The Australian today published what Treasury told the previous government in April last year about the likely inflation effect of what Labor was talking about at the time. This news report was based on a leak-no prizes for guessing who might still have a copy of the advice and a motive to put it in the hands of a journalist. As the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out, the Treasury assessment was made 10 days before Labor released its policy, and the inflation outlook has changed dramatically since.
  • In response to an FOI application by Michael McKinnon, Treasury released parts of the briefing book provided to the incoming government, with large sections deleted. McKinnon is said to be challenging this in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
  • Treasury Secretary Ken Henry, who has consistently argued the need for confidentiality in the provision of advice, took the unprecedented step of publicly announcing Treasury had advised the Government not to specify an amount in its submission on the minimum wage, to correct claims made by the Opposition. No need for an FOI application, or a long drawn out battle to gain access in this instance.
  • Treasury argued successfully in the Tribunal that a four year old report of a working party on the policy and legal issues associated with the proposal to criminalise cartel conduct was exempt under the FOI Act.The Treasury did not argue the report was exempt as a cabinet document, but because cabinet later considered the issue, that the report was inextricably linked with the cabinet process. The Tribunal affirmed the Treasury decision that disclosure would be contrary to the public interest, despite strong evidence that it would assist public debate and research. The applicant, Brent Fisse has lodged an appeal with the Federal Court of Australia
  • Treasury released documents that disclose some newsworthy tidbits as reported here and here. Both sets of documents released under the FOI Act seem helpful to the Government. The latter involved disclosure of (ignored) advice on inflation to former Treasurer Costello, giving Treasurer Swan a walkup start to inflict a little more pain on the Opposition.

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