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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Australia 30 out of 179 in press freedom report

The Press Freedom Index 2011-2012, a survey covering 179 countries published by Paris based NGO, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), ranks Australia 30th, a drop of 12 places in a year, but overall "satisfactory." At the top of the list, Finland, Norway, Estonia and the Netherlands. Canada came in 10th, the UK at 28 and the US at 47. New Zealand dropped from eight to 13. No country in this region made the top ten. China at 174.

Our standing in this annual survey is now two places below that of 2007. At that time this was cited as one of the reasons for the establishment of the coalition of major media organisations, Australia's Right to Know, to address concerns about free speech in Australia. (Low profile in recent years, to put it mildly- the latest Media Release posted, May 2010; the latest submission to government October 2009.)

In the decade since these surveys began, the first was our best (12), the next our worst (50), with significant movement within these tramtracks since:
No country reports are published with the survey results. In the 2011-2012 summary we receive this half-sentence mention (Asia section):
"In Australia (30th), the media were subjected to investigations and criticism by the authorities, and were denied access to information.." 
Hmm. Ignoring the hysteria in some media circles over floated privacy law reforms, and the claims Andrew Bolt is a martyr for free speech, you could expand on that if room permitted, all the while acknowledging some improvements in freedom of information laws and practice in all but three jurisdictions.

The criteria for the ratings are published, as is the methodology:
The (44 question) questionnaire was sent to Reporters Without Borders’ partner organizations (18 freedom of expression groups in all five continents-none in Australia), to its network of 150 correspondents around the world, and to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists (hands up anyone? declaration, not me.). A scale devised by the organization was then used to give a country score to each questionnaire.
Separately as part of the RSF project "Enemies of the Internet" the prospect of a harsh internet filtering system here receives special mention and we appear on the list of countries under surveillance on this score.

I'm with Andrew Lowenthal writing in the New York Times-I too like RSF and admire the important work it does, but rankings of this kind are, well, questionable. Lowenthal is scratching his head that Hungary rated seven places ahead of the USA despite the fact that it has adopted a law giving the ruling party direct control over the media and amending its constitution accordingly.

Lowenthal is not alone. In Indonesia The Jakarta Post reports the Press Council saying it was odd that Indonesia (down 29 places to 146) ranked below Singapore, Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia, "all countries in Southeast Asia known for the draconian measures used to silence the media." (I'd throw in Fiji at 117 for good measure.)

Commentary from our homegrown media is awaited with interest.

In the latest Freedom House Freedom of the Press survey (2011) which includes a detailed country report, Australia's score was 21-the best appears to be 10.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Names of "no gong, thanks" crowd unlikely to surface in Australia

Dahl-Charlie and the Chocolate..
Lewis-Narnia and all that..
Thanks to reader Andrew for drawing attention to the release in the UK, in response to a Freedom of Information application by the BBC, of the names of those who  declined a Queen's honour between 1951 and 1999, and who have since died-Roald Dahl and CS Lewis for two. "Until now, the information was so secret it was not included in official papers released under the 30-year rule," according to the BBC.

None of the 277 people on the list (pdf courtesy of BBC) are identifiable Australians-Imperial honours were the go until the Whitlam government abolished them and created the Order of Australia in 1975-although the request may have been limited to British names.

What's the likely story here?

Documents concerning consideration of names for submission for Imperial awards, up to 1974, and the later records held by the Office of the Governor General concerning the Council of the Order of Australia, the first of which are now 37 years old, in theory, should be well into open access (now after 20 not 30 years) and available from National Archives Australia. However unlike the UK, where personal information protections in the FOI act relate only to information concerning "a living individual," there is a hurdle: our archives act (s 33(1)(g)) qualifies the right to access through a provision that protects "information or matter the disclosure of which .. would involve the unreasonable disclosure of information relating to the personal affairs of any person (including a deceased person.)"

I don't know whether anyone has had a crack at this. Or sought records still held by the Office of the Governor General under the Freedom of Information Act. On the latter, probably not, given that the current battle over whether guidelines for awards are documents of "an administrative nature" subject to the act seems to be a first. A second hurdle once over the first would be whether the FOI act personal privacy conditional exemption s 47F applies. 

Two significant differences to the Archives Act: the FOI definition of personal information makes no reference to a person as living or deceased. And section 47F includes an additional public interest test, not found in archives legislation (don't ask me!). I'd expect disclosure under FOI of names of those who declined an award would be unreasonable in the absence of consent (where practicable, from next of kin in the case of a deceased person) and in any event that public interest considerations in favour of release would not be strong.

But otherwise idle researchers out there, your time starts now!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ever wondered about the award of an Australian gong?

Amid the congratulations to over 400 commendable Australians who received Australia Day awards, the Canberra Times highlights costs incurred by the Office of the Governor-General for legal advice to fend off an application by Karen Kline to access the guidelines for selecting honours recipients. The case will be heard in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal next month. Here is a recap from last October. At that stage the office had spent 3000 hours dealing with the matter. The main issue-there may be others- is whether these documents held by staff employed under the Governor General Act including the Official Secretary who doubles as Secretary to the Council for the Order of Australia are "documents of an administrative nature", and thus within scope under Section 6A(1), or whether the FOI commissioner's decision they aren't should stand.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sunshine prompts some parliamentarians to certify entitlement expenditure

The Department of Finance and Deregulation list of parliamentarians and senators who had not certified that expenditure by Finance was for legal use of entitlements, referred to here a week ago when the count of non-certifiers was around the 100 mark as at 6 January, reduced to 64 by the 20th. How many rightfully asserted "not guilty" along with John Cobb is unknown. Ministers Roxon, Bowen and Crean, Opposition frontbenchers Bishop and Turnbull and The Greens Bandt are among those who tidied up the record in this period-for expenditure January to June 2011- but those still outstanding (you know what I mean) include minister Conroy, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, and Andrew Wilkie- who admittedly has had a busy few weeks.

As certification is voluntary (ahem, is anyone else concerned about this?), I imagine the issue is not anywhere near a high priority for the 20 listed who were not re-elected in 2010 (there are others from previous parliaments). They include Lindsay Tanner, Maxine McKew, and Pat Farmer who has run from the North to the South Pole raising money for the Red Cross, but  this week was "in a tent at the US base, with his feet in warm water drinking a bottle of champagne."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Blue Book non-disclosure in NSW:behind the scenes
Those who followed developments concerning access to incoming government briefs-the red and blue books- in Canberra following the 2010 election, and more recently in some of the states -will find the contents of a bundle of documents posted online in the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet Disclosure Log  in December of interest.

The documents DPC11/03467(pdf) were released to a GIPA applicant (I'm guessing the Daily Telegraph given this report in December) who sought access to documents provided by the Department to the Premier's Office after last year's election, the period from March until November 2011, in relation to access applications made under the GIPA act.

Question time briefs prepared for the Premier suggest what he might say if asked in Parliament about the refusal to disclose any of the incoming government folders, and provide him with other background information, including as some of us said in March, that the Premier could direct disclosure outside the act should he wish to do so, something that never happened.

One undated brief informs the Premier that the Department was reviewing its decision to refuse access in response to a GIPA application, in line with a recommendation from the Information Commissioner that all agencies should do so. (NSW Government Blue Books (pdf)). The only evidence of any result, in this batch of documents, are pages 88-89 from the Departmental Support Services section of the folder, about tabling procedures in parliament, GIPA processing and the registration of lobbyists scheme- they don't come any more bland. (A search on the department's website for "incoming government briefs" produces nothing from the folders at all.)

 Fifty four of the 97 pages consist of weekly lists, through to September 2011, of GIPA applications received by and on hand in the Department-a first glimpse of a full list of what applicants seek. One of the briefing notes confirms that the Premier's office is only notified of a departmental determination after the event, but these lists show that detail about applications is known long before that, with applications from "the media" (no names or other details) categorised and distinguished from the rest.

On disclosure of what government agencies told their new masters and mistresses as they slid feet under the desk, compare and contrast NSW -virtually nothing-with significant if far from complete disclosure of similar documents by 13 or more federal government agencies including those bastions of closely guarded information, Treasury, Foreign Affairs and Defence. To repeat, poor form for a government that came to office indicating improvements in transparency and accountability were a high priority.

(Update: Stephen Murray in a comment on this post draws attention to the release of parts of four volumes of the folders-there are others- on the Premier's department Disclosure Log (a bit of digging on page three) following release, he says to the Australian Financial Review. His analysis of the content is worth reading. To summarise:
"So, what has now been released is an amalgam of mission statements, corporate plans, handbooks and guidelines along with a seeming dump of the combined contents of departmental Outlook Contacts and Appointments: more “Bland Books” than “Blue Books”.)

Or as the South Australian Ombudsman, bound by the legislation there to rule that incoming government briefs were cabinet documents exempt for the same reason as in NSW, but where unlike NSW, agencies retain a discretion to disclose, commented:
In my view, there are reasons why the agencies might give access to parts of the portfolio briefs and other briefing documents, notwithstanding that they are exempt.....I consider that there is a strong public interest in members of the public being aware of policy initiatives and other issues that the agencies consider important to South Australia. In my view, access to such information would enhance public participation in discussions about South Australia’s future, and would be consistent with the objects of the FOI Act of promoting openness and accountability, as well as the principles of administration. I consider these public interest factors to be strongest with respect to generic documents, that is documents prepared with either a returning Labor or an incoming Liberal government in mind
As to the bundle of Premier's department documents, there is no index or content list but here is what it contains, in order, with some comment along the way:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

PM's office draws a legal shade on sunshine

Ceridwen [CC-BY-SA-2.0] Wikimedia Commons
FOI Editor at The Australian, Sean Parnell wrote over the break about the two decisions handed down (in Christmas week) by Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan, upholding decisions on behalf of the Prime Minister to refuse access to documents because they were outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.

The issue in both cases was whether documents requested by Parnell were "official documents of a Minister."( Freedom of Information Act (s 4). The commissioner found that a letter sent in September 2010 by Emily's List, a Labor Party advocacy group which counts the Prime Minister as a member, congratulating her on her election victory, and separately, a list of the meetings and conference commitments of the Prime Minister at an ALP national conference, did not relate to the affairs of a government agency, an essential component of the definition, and therefore were not subject to the FOI act.

Parnell argued in both cases that the documents involved contact with people seeking to influence government decision making that should, in the interests of transparency, be disclosed. But as the commissioner observed
Whether there is a public interest in greater transparency surrounding contact between elected political leaders and business or community representatives is not the issue to be resolved in this IC review. That is a debate for another forum.
Hopefully an issue for the review of the Commonwealth act towards the end of the year, and for anytime anyone shows an interest in our weak lobbying laws that should require some disclosures about lobbying activity.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Prominent parliamentarians fail to certify entitements expenditure

They're busy people. So some of our politicians appear not to have had the time (add other plausible excuse) to attend to an important accountability obligation: to certify that expenditure on entitlements by the Department of Finance and Deregulation on their behalf was in accordance with applicable legislation. That seems to be the take away from publication with no fanfare or explanation, of these lists of members and senators, and former parliamentarians. under the heading "Parliamentarians' Certification."
(Update: The mainstream media picked up on this story on 17 January)
(Further Update 24 January.) 

For years Senate Estimates have prodded on this issue, the Auditor General has pointed to a sizeable gap in the accountability system, while the Belcher committee in 2010  recommended the publication of names of members and senators who did not certify legal entitlement use in accordance with prescribed terms. Presumably this is what has now been published by Finance. Around 100 names including  20 no longer in parliament have a blank against them. Some prominent front benchers feature (Tony Abbott, Simon Crean, Malcolm Turnbull, all three Bishops) but...House Speaker Peter Slipper gets a tick. 

Apparently certification can be signed “subject to qualification” but the lists don't categorise in this way. There are a lot more no responses than previously indicated: there were said to be about 30 in 2009.

Concerns about accountability and transparency shortcomings in the system have been kicking around since an audit report in 1990-91. The adequacy of certification was next canvassed in a 2001‐02 Audit Report. Despite some improvements, an Auditor General's report in 2009 -2010 again identified weaknesses including the dangers of reliance for accountability purposes on (self) certification, and the fact compliance by parliamentarians was voluntary not mandatory. The issues and how they could be addressed were mapped out in detail last year by Helen Williams in her Review of Administration of Entitlements which Finance is working its way through, including changes to the presentation of information in reports provided for certification. (See Implementation progress – Recommendations of the Review of Administration of Ministerial and Parliamentary Services.)

The publication of names gives practical but partial effect to Recommendation 13 in the Belcher report- like (i) and(ii) there are many others that still await a government response:
That the Special Minister of State, on the advice of the Department of Finance and Deregulation, table in the parliament:
(i) the name of any sitting or former senator or member who has not substantially complied with a request for information about an alleged entitlement misuse within a reasonable time (for example, 28 days)
(ii) the outcome of the investigation into the complaint, and
(iii) regular reports setting out each senator’s and member’s compliance with the requirement for certification that entitlements have been accessed in accordance with the relevant legislation, including any justification given by the senator or member for non-compliance with the requirement.

So publication of the January-June 2011 list is a positive development, but it throws no light on which members and senators have consistently not complied with the certification requirement, in its various forms, for years. A Finance official told Senate Estimates in February 2009 that there were some reports that had not been certified going back to July 2007.

Senator Faulkner was the minister at the table during that hearing and obviously thought (p 99) publicly naming  "genuine recalcitrants" was necessary, in the interests of proper accountability and transparency:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

All payments to all parliamentarians should be published online

Alicia Wood in the Sydney Morning Herald
..."the head of Infrastructure NSW, Nick Greiner, has cost taxpayers millions over the past 20 years because of entitlements given to former premiers who have served for at least four years. According to figures released by the Department of Premier and Cabinet as part of a freedom of information request, Mr Greiner has claimed the most in entitlements over the past three years. He is followed by Neville Wran and Bob Carr."
Cimexus-Flickr CCL
This sort of information should be routinely published without the need for a GIPA application, as is the case with payments by the Department of Finance and Deregulation to and on behalf of former prime ministers (and former federal parliamentarians). That department also publishes online, twice a year information about payments made to and on behalf of current members and senators. The detail and timeliness provides another sharp contrast with disclosures concerning current NSW parliamentarians. There, global figures for categories of annual sums paid  to each member are buried away in appendices to the annual reports of the Department of the Legislative Assembly 2010-2011 pdf-Appendix G) and Legislative Council (Annual Report 2010/2011 pdf-Appendix I).

(The information released by the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet is yet to make it onto the department's Disclosure Log.)

I haven't checked out recently or thoroughly the transparency situation regarding payments to parliamentarians in the other states  Access to information may vary depending on whether  some or all entitlements are paid by an executive government agency such as NSW P&C (subject to FOI/RTI) or a parliamentary department-Tasmania is the only jurisdiction where the access to information law extends to parliament itself (concerning matters of an administrative nature). As to the Federal scene where some payments in addition to those made by Finance are made by the parliamentary departments see yesterday's post. In February 2009, the presiding officers in NSW and the government of the day dismissed the suggestion by the Ombudsman that consideration be given to extending access to information legislation to the parliament. In Queensland expenses of ministers and former ministers are administered by Ministerial Services Branch of the Premier's Department (subject to the RTI act) but the Legislative Assembly and its parliamentary services department that pays on behalf of members are entities excluded from the act. 

Monday, January 09, 2012

Federal parliament and an echo from the past on transparency

Phillip Dorling writing today in the Sydney Morning Herald
Department of Parliamentary Services secretary Alan Thompson sent staff a memo last week announcing his intention to retire with the expectation of finishing as agency head in early April. Mr Thompson said it had been ''an honour and a privilege'' to serve the Parliament over the past 3½ years. Mr Thompson's early departure comes as the Senate finance and public administration committee pursues a wide-ranging investigation into the performance of his agency, which employs 800 staff and spends $120 million a year providing services within Parliament House.
An Australian Law Reform Commission report completed in 1995

11.8 The parliamentary departments are currently excluded from the coverage of the FOI Act.[23] In 1979 the Senate Standing Committee expressed the view that the 'parliamentary departments should be encouraged to act as if the legislation were applicable to them'.[24] DP 59 proposed that the parliamentary departments should be brought within the scope of the FOI Act on the basis that documents that warrant protection would be adequately protected by the exemption provisions, for example s 46 (parliamentary privilege).[25] A number of submissions, including that of the Clerk of the Senate, support the proposal.[26] The Department of the Senate has, in any case, always acted as though it were subject to the FOI Act, releasing documents unless they would have fallen within an exemption. In contrast the Department of Parliamentary Reporting Staff considers that it should remain outside the Act because it does not have a public policy role or provide services to the public. It claims that extending the FOI Act to the parliamentary departments could expose them to lengthy and costly legal challenges in respect of material they would claim to be exempt under s 46.[27] The Department of the Parliamentary Librarian also opposes extending the Act to the parliamentary departments for similar reasons.[28] The Review is not persuaded by these arguments. It remains convinced, particularly in light of the experience of the Department of the Senate, that there is no justification for the parliamentary departments to be excluded from the Act and that being subject to the Act will not cause any greater inconvenience for them than is caused to other agencies subject to the Act. Accordingly, it recommends that the parliamentary departments be made subject to the FOI Act.

Recommendation 73

The parliamentary departments should be made subject to the FOI Act.
The response to this recommendation by the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments, and every parliament since:
                       (This space intentionally left blank.)

FOI frustration for Schapelle Corby but not the death of democratic rights

I wasn't aware of the Expendable Project until alerted by a comment from Jan Wilson on the recent post about Schapelle Corby, and haven't immersed myself in its claims about government skulduggery. But I have read the FOI Abuse Report, one of many, about freedom of information applications made on her behalf to a number of agencies, and what transpired.

FOI always has the capacity to disappoint which it has done in this case. But I don't see anything persuasive to support the claim that 
"Schapelle Corby's democratic and legal rights, under freedom of information legislation in Australia, have been revoked."

Some comments.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Information access and piecing together the School for Killlers story

The information access issue is a minor but important part of the shocking Tamworth Institution for Boys story reported before Christmas by Geoff Thompson of the ABC Investigative Unit. The most important aspect, is what went on there and how it was allowed to happen. The Institution for Boys, for absconders from other boy's homes aged 15-18 during the period 1948-1976, sounds like Port Arthur for hardened criminals a hundred years earlier.

The good order of society and the well being of its members-the public interest-is advanced by such a disclosure about the harsh and inhumane treatment of boys by a government institution under the mantle of "child welfare." You have to wonder what steps were taken in the past to hush it up,or if any steps are being taken now to get to the bottom of it. And dare I say, apologise or attempt to compensate for those still with us.

But what of Thompson's success in obtaining from the NSW Department of Family and Community Services a comprehensive list of boys sent there, then matching the data with other available information to link names to 35 violent deaths, and to ascertain the "school" was attended by some of Australia's most infamous killers and criminals, including Arthur Stanley 'Neddy' Smith, George Freeman, Kevin Crump, James Finch, Archibald McCafferty and Billy Munday?

Thompson in his report said the information resulted from a "Freedom of Information" request. If so, the application would have been made before 1 July 2010 when the NSW act was repealed. Alternatively Thompson may have used FOI as shorthand for the replacement act-and bigger mouthful-the NSW Government Information (Public Access) Act, perhaps not referred to in his stories because it is unknown to about 99% of the audience. 

Thompson reported that the department, citing privacy concerns, withheld surnames but released a full list of given names and date of birth for boys sent there. He was able to match this with other (unspecified) information to establish Tamworth was a "school for killers."

The other information used to make the connection with known and notorious criminals may have been publicly available court records-there must be plenty of them for this crowd.

Whether the information released also helped Thompson identify and track down others is unclear. For the story Thompson interviewed six former inmates who did not go on to commit serious offences. 

A given name and DOB of a person detained as a boy many years ago wouldn't usually get you far in tracking someone down in Australia. DOB information is not in the public domain. Boys in an institution wouldn't be in the phone book or, if under 18, on the electoral roll in those days.

The FOI/ RTI-GIPA decision maker in Family and Community Services probably concluded that release of  information in this form avoided the need for third party consultation (probably impractical in any event because of lack of current contact information and the numbers involved), sufficiently de-identified the information so that it was no longer "personal information," and that disclosure was not contrary to the public interest (to use the GIPA test).

On the face of things, all reasonable judgments and within the bounds of the law.

Unfortunately my attempt to contact Thompson through the ABC Investigative Unit to ask about aspects of his big FOI find came to nothing. We'd still love to hear, Geoff.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Difficult to make predictions, especially about the future

Wikimedia Commons-Bastique
 Ah, someone (Dan Quayle?) somewhere said it, and I know what they mean.

While I'm beavering away on predictions on press freedom issues for 2012 for publication in the Walkley Magazine February edition, my 2011 lot weren't waaaay off the mark:
  • Prime Minister Gillard’s commitment to “let the sun shine in” notwithstanding, the hard yards lie ahead in implementing reforms associated with the Freedom of Information Act introduced in November. (We've seen improvements, but hey, this was low hanging fruit and I'll take it.)
  • The Baillieu government will move on FoI changes in Victoria, leaving South Australia and Western Australia still in need of prompting to join the FoI reform bandwagon. (In the ballpark. Extremely modest and limited reform legislation limped into the Victorian Parliament before year end, but is still to emerge. No movement at the station in SA or WA.)
  • Talk a few years ago about the need to look at private-sector disclosure obligations (and protection for private-sector whistleblowers) will remain just that. (See 1 above.)
  • Shield laws for journalists will be influenced by the emergence of WikiLeaks– who or what is a journalist and in what circumstances should the presumption of protection apply? (Yes. Three state attorneys general are wedded to the idea that bloggers can't be journalists.)
  • Leakers of information of a kind that doesn’t qualify as wrongdoing will continue to run risks to their careers and penalties at law. (See 1 above.)
  • The adequacy of media standards, ethics, responsibility and self-regulation may also come in for discussion.(Yes, and I'd never even heard of Judge Finkelstein at the time.)
  • Media interests may be relaxed that consideration of reform of privacy laws will continue at a snail’s pace. (Snail's pace yes, but some media interests were frenzied at the prospect.)
  • Then of course, there are myriad other issues, including access to court information, and getting the balance right in defamation law. (See 1 above.)
  • Even censorship will get a run in 2011, with the Australian Law Reform Commission given a reference in December “to conduct a review of classification in Australia in light of changes in technology, media convergence and the global availability of media content.” (Yes.)
  • The most confident prediction? A busy year ahead. (Shame to take the money.)
Any crystal ball gazers like to try their hand at the year ahead?

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Schapelle Corby on a point of order

The details of the Freedom of Information application and the documents in dispute are not clear but Schapelle Corby is contesting a decision by the Australian Federal Police to deny access to some documents claimed exempt on grounds relating to the security, defence or international relations of the Commonwealth. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal in what might be the first published decision on the interpretation of amendments that came into effect in November 2010, was asked to rule on procedure arising from the requirement in s 60A:
Before determining that the document is not an exempt document under section 33, the Tribunal must request the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security to appear personally and give evidence
The legal representative of the AFP, and the Inspector-General submitted that the section compels a second hearing if the Tribunal is minded to release documents after a first hearing. President Justice Downes and Deputy President Handley noted that a second hearing would "amount to an unusual, even unique, process" and
  1. ....create a number of problems. First, after a first hearing, the Tribunal would receive submissions on the documents and evidence before it at that time. The submissions to be put by an applicant would have to address that state of affairs. It is at least possible that such submissions might be compromised at the time of a further hearing, after further evidence from the Inspector-General, which affected the state of the evidence.
  2. Other practical problems arise. Is the respondent to be given a further opportunity to put on evidence after the Inspector-General? Is the applicant to be given a further opportunity to put on evidence after the Inspector-General? The rules of procedural fairness would almost certainly ensure that at least the applicant should be entitled to put on further evidence and make further submissions. There is also the unusual fact that, before the Inspector-General was invited to give evidence, the Tribunal would be required, on the case put by the Australian Federal Police and the Inspector-General, at least on a preliminary basis, to form a view that the documents should be released. It is not the habit of courts or tribunals in Australia to release draft decisions and then invite further submissions, yet de facto that is what is being suggested here.
The Tribunal found nothing in s 60A that compelled the “two hearing approach.”
"It seems to us that the Tribunal, at any time that seems appropriate to the Tribunal, can make a request under s 60A, and the steps that s 60A require will come into play."[18] 
No orders were issued, and the Tribunal suggested ways in which the matter could proceed to hearing likely to be in late February or March, when more about the documents in dispute will be revealed.

(Update-there is quite a Corby related FOI queue at Customs and the AFP)

Head-scratchers in secrecy claims for documents 30 years old

From NAA website
The National Archives Authority released Cabinet papers for two years on 1 January, as part of the transition from the 30 to 20 years secrecy rule, comprising 800 of the papers considered and discussed by the Fraser and Hawke Cabinets in 1982 and 1983. The media coverage of what was released focuses, rightly, on some of the juicy bits. What wasn't released sparks interest here.

  While a relatively small amount of information in the overall scheme of things (and about the same proportion as last year), you have to wonder whether excessive secrecy rather than legitimate well based concern about the effect of disclosure is at work here.

The titles of three documents withheld in their entirety isn't disclosed and parts of 25 others have been redacted. The "reasons" given are simply assertions of a claim for exemption under the Archives Act 1983. The NAA shorthand descriptions of two exemptions (section 33(1)(b), 33(1)(c)) leave out important elements of the exemption provision itself.

Some redactions that prompt more than the usual amount of head-scratching, bearing in mind the documents are 29-30 years old, include
  • To protect Australia’s security, defence or international relations. Six documents relate to Antactica including "Australian policy objectives in Antarctica." Then there is  "Overview of Defence counter-terrorist capability", "Australian policy towards China" and "Future Australian interest in Christmas Island".
  • Withheld because release would have a substantial adverse effect on the financial or property interests of the Australian government or a government institution. "New policy proposals 1982-1983 - Treasury" (!!) (The exemption contains a public interest test- disclosure would not, on balance, be in the public interest.)
  • To protect information because its release would adversely impact on the business, commercial or financial affairs of a person, organisation or undertaking." Report of Mr A F Smith on the Office of the Deputy Crown Solicitor (DCS), Perth."  (!!!!!)