Matthew Moore in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday joined a chorus of UK commentary about the Minister for Justice Jack Straw using a veto power in the Freedom of Information Act for the first time to overrule a decision by the Information Tribunal requiring release of cabinet documents that would reveal consideration of the Government's legal advice prior to the decision to join the war in Iraq in 2003.The Tribunal had upheld the Information Commissioner's decision that the public interest justified disclosure in these special circumstances.
With the Federal Government's Bill before Parliament here to remove ministerial powers like this, Moore suggests the UK controversy will alert policy makers to the dangers of a public interest test in the cabinet documents exemption in the rewrite of the Federal and NSW Freedom of Information acts now or soon to be underway.The Queensland draft Right to Information Bill- now in pre-election limbo- has an absolute exemption for cabinet documents, at least more tightly drafted than the current provision which is broad enough to exempt documents simply because they where wheeled into the room while cabinet was meeting.
Straw said he acted to protect 'aspects of our structure of democratic government' and ensure the exchange of free and frank ministerial discussions of controversial issues in the future' even though the minutes reveal no individual views or details of contributions to discussion. Straw was Foreign Minister at the time. The Economist suggests the minutes mightn't reveal much at all and that was the real reason for acting to prevent disclosure:
"It is unlikely in any event that the minutes would reveal much that is not already in the public domain. Since 2003 no fewer than four of the ministers who sat in cabinet then have spoken or written of the meetings. This, said the tribunal, was evidence of a dwindling respect for the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility, to which confidentiality is said by the government to be so crucial. It also suggests that, in refusing to publish the minutes, a more serious concern for the government than the possible inhibition of free and frank debate in cabinet was the probable confirmation that on this occasion, at any rate, there wasn’t any."