"But Australian lawyer and FOI campaigner Peter Timmins says DEEWR was simply following suit, with nine other departments (Comment: I think its now 13) – beginning with Treasury in late September – beating it to the punch. In fact, Treasury started the trend a few years ago when it went out on a limb and published the red book it had prepared for Kevin Rudd’s 2007 victory.
While Treasury was the trendsetter, Veterans’ Affairs set a new benchmark by releasing not only its red book but also its blue book – the alternative brief prepared in case of a Coalition win – in response to a budget estimates committee question. It’s the only agency to have done so, says Timmins.
If “red book” and “blue book” are new additions to your lexicon, “redaction” won’t be far behind. DEEWR redacted its red book before publishing it, removing “personal information, business information, information under consideration by government or information which concerns cabinet deliberations”.
But Timmins says all the briefs have been redacted to some extent, with an entire section removed from Treasury’s red book – including the chapter’s title.
And commentators complained that Prime Minister and Cabinet’s redactions – which left big blank gaps throughout the bewildering 568-page red book – had rendered the public version utterly useless. The prime minister’s version, on the other hand, came in a fully searchable format – complete with customised iPad.
But Timmins says Prime Minister and Cabinet deserves credit for releasing at least some of its brief – unlike Foreign Affairs and Trade, which refused to release anything. And while Immigration and Citizenship is handing out copies of its brief to journalists who ask, it has yet to post it on its website.
But it says it plans to, along with all other documents it releases under FOI. Timmins says all federal agencies will be obliged to do this from May, under changes made to the FOI Act last November. The Reserve Bank is already complying.
FOI application fees have also been abolished, and departments cannot start charging for the work they put into FOI requests until they have already devoted five hours of administrative time. Timmins says this should encourage greater use of FOI, possibly reversing an uncharacteristic lull in applications last year.
While independent MPs’ views occupy a significant proportion of the red books published so far, Timmins says they are also a significant part of the reason the briefs were published in the first place. He says Julia Gillard made optimistic statements about being open and accountable after she formed her minority government. But this reflected the election’s result, not the people’s mandate.
“During the election campaign itself, neither she nor [Tony] Abbott said a word about that sort of topic. But when the hung parliament emerged, it became obvious that this was a priority for the independents, Wilkie and the Greens – who’ve all pushed these sorts of issues for years.
“In her first interview after she was able to form a government, she volunteered … we’ve heard the people, and the people have said we want you to be more open and accountable. She claimed that was a key message from the election. It was really a key message from the people she now had to work with.”
Still, Timmins says, anecdotal evidence suggests it is getting easier to obtain information. The FOI Act changes are a smallish step in the right direction, he says.
DEEWR has declined to say how many FOI applications it has received for its red book, or whether interest has risen. But it says its decision to publish also reflects “several general enquiries in relation to the document”.
Meanwhile, Timmins says, a recent Law Reform Commission report recommended a rethinking of the 500-odd secrecy provisions in Commonwealth acts, with a toning down of the most draconian examples. But he says although WikiLeaks has demonstrated the futility of overly secretive government, it could prove an obstacle to legal reform.
“My guess is that WikiLeaks is going to flavour the consideration of the Law Reform Commission report. There will be some voices saying we need to be tougher rather than more open; we need to clamp down on the release of information. “I think we’re about to see another round of discussion and debate, with the WikiLeaks issue giving the naysayers some ammunition.” But they will have to work hard to turn off the tap, he adds.
“There is no doubt that use of FOI by journalists has risen sharply in the last few years – although it will never replace a good and reliable source or a well-timed leak.”