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Monday, September 27, 2010

Publication of Treasury's Red Book contributes to public understanding

There should be more of it.

The release in response to Freedom of Information applications and the initiative taken to publish on the internet Treasury's "Red Book" brief prepared for a returned Labor Government is a commendable start on delivering more open government as promised by Prime Minister Gillard. While parts have been redacted- including everything, even the title of Attachment G- most of the briefs have been published. Economic and other policy commentators have already found much of interest, prompting The Australian's Michael Stutchbury to observe
Many Australians would have wanted to know about all this before, rather than after, they voted. Surely that would encourage a more informed election campaign than the one we've just endured.
The same goes for what other agencies had to say on issues within their domain so interesting to see whether who if any have or will follow the Treasury lead.

Public debate could and should be informed, not so much through daily access to what public servants are telling ministers about policy plans or problems but through publication of what amounts to expert opinion and assessment of issues that are or should be seen as of great public importance. Treasury and public servants generally are up there with the best we have in many fields, although they don't have a monopoly on wisdom, and aren't always right. They have a contribution to make to public understanding of issues, best made not months later when someone might ask under FOI and will usually have to battle through, or years later when the documents are available from Archives, but at the time when the  community and public discussion would benefit most from this input.

This comment in June 2008 argued the merits of such an approach following publication of embarrassing leaks that showed differences between agencies about the merits of the ill fated FuelWatch. Maybe Treasury's disclosures indicate we are moving in this direction and away from the excessive secrecy of previous times.
Perhaps indicative of the traditional Treasury risk centric mindset, the Administration brief includes a section on FOI, advising (emphasis added):
The Policy Coordination and Governance Unit provides advice and management of risks associated with Freedom of Information (FOI) and privacy issues in accordance with legislative requirements.
Treasury did not publish the Blue Book, the briefing prepared in the event of a change of government, but processed FOI applications for a draft that was never finalised. According to media reports Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey passed it around after redacted copies were released to journalists in response to FOI applications.

Queensland where I am at the moment is unique in including an absolute exemption in the Right to Information Act (Schedule 3 Clause 3) that protects for 10 years information prepared for the purpose of briefing an incoming minister about the department.

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