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Monday, December 08, 2008

Just say it isn't so, Malcolm

Malcolm Turnbull
In The Spycatcher Trial (Heinemann Australia 1988) a young Sydney barrister, Malcolm Turnbull, fresh from a notable court victory to allow publication of the memoirs of the late Peter Wright formerly of MI5, says " this book chronicles the greatest adventure of my life." The dust jacket says at the time Turnbull took on the case, the UK Government, and the Official Secrets Act, "he had a one percent chance of winning", and that his "brilliant cross-examination of British Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong.. turned the trial in favour of Wright and made Spycatcher an international bestseller." Turnbull successfully argued the case on several grounds including that no injunction should restrain disclosure of information that the public interest required to be revealed, such as the illegal activities of British intelligence agencies.In the final chapter Turnbull says "Britain's absolute doctrine of official secrecy and its cynically inconsistent application has much more in common with the practices of the Soviet Union (RIP) than with those of its intelligence partners among Western democracies."

Turnbull, now Leader of the Opposition, could be expected to have strong views about excessive secrecy closer to home (how comfortable was he as a minister in the Howard Government?) and to support Senator Faulkner's bill to abolish conclusive certificates. But according to Matthew Moore in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday, the Opposition played a key role in ensuring the bill was wheeled off to a Senate Committee for four months, and remains uncertain about its position on abolition:

"So does the Opposition support scrapping conclusive certificates? Apparently, it doesn't yet know. George Brandis is the Opposition member with responsibility for FoI. His adviser, James Lambie, says the Opposition policy position on the proposal is "to await the Senate committee's report". He said while the Opposition doesn't have any "in principle objections to removal of conclusive certificates", it can't say it supports the move. Given that state governments have by and large got rid of conclusive certificates from their FoI laws, it's hard to imagine which stakeholders want them retained in the federal law and why the Opposition wants an inquiry - unless some members are concerned about the immediate impact the change might have.

One effect of the bill is that certificates issued previously will be revoked if and when a new FoI request for documents covered by a certificate is received. That retrospective revocation of certificates could see the release of bundles of sensitive documents, including Treasury documents, that members of the Howard Government assumed would be secret forever. If there is any such sensitivity, expect to see it in the face of Mitch Fifield, deputy chair of the committee investigating the bill and the former senior political adviser to Peter Costello until 2003 at just the time the former Treasurer was busy issuing conclusive certificates."

Can someone make sure The Spycatcher Trial is in the stocking for those opposition senators looking for a little reading over the christmas break?

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