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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Who ministers and minders talk to about what

Jack Waterford in The Canberra Times compares some aspects of transparency in the UK as practiced by the PM and other ministers concerning meetings with lobbyists, with our very own, echoing observations here about the quite word in the ear approach that slides under the radar in this part of the world. "Spot on, Jack"  I say in a comment just published.

In a related matter, an important decision in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal last week saw Vice President Judge Jenkins take a broad approach to what constitutes an official document of a minister and within scope of the Victorian Freedom of Information Act.

In The Herald and Weekly Times v Office of the Premier [2012] VCAT 967 Judge Jenkins ruled that the diary of Premier Baillieu's former chief of staff Michael Kapel was a document in the constructive possession of the premier and that many entries in a sample provided to the Tribunal related "to the affairs of an agency" even where they did not directly concern departmental business but were relevant to the Ministerial responsibilities of the Premier or any other Minister, as a Minister of the Crown. The range of entries which Judge Jenkins found would qualify for release (subject to any exemption claim) include:
  • (a) attendances involving a range of stakeholders, both with and without the Premier; and both with and without public servants;
  • (b) interaction with public servants, both with and without the Premier;
  • (c) attendances involving Parliamentary colleagues; the media, unions; community, business and ethnic parties and organisations;
  • (d) attendances involving foreign dignitaries, including politicians and diplomats;
  • (e) other entries which may record events, whether or not attended by the Chief of Staff; and
  • (f) entries in the nature of descriptions, observations or outcomes.
While welcoming this new potential extended torchlight on what ministerial advisers get up to, I expect lawyers will be pondering Judge Jenkins finding [at 75] that
"the expression ‘relates to the affairs of an agency’ does not connote direct involvement by an agency in the document per se, but rather whether the document records any act, matter or event which falls within the Minister’s responsibilities as a Minister of the Crown." 
Information of the kind outside scope where similar words appear in legislation, as in this decision by the Australian Information Commissioner, because it relates to party political activity can still be distinguished. But  it seems to me Judge Jenkins has nudged things forward a notch or two.

As Jack Waterford points out, however, you won't find in these parts anything like that published by 10 Downing Street at "Who ministers are meeting'":
 It lists the diary appointments of all British ministers, and of their senior minders, and of their department heads and senior executive officers. It also lists meetings with journalists, and their organisations. Mostly, it gives some clue about the nature of the discussions (David Cameron, October, met with Joe Lewis to discuss redevelopment of Tottenham Hotspur stadium, or, Lockheed Martin, to discuss Warrior upgrade program.) In some case, little lobbying is said to have occurred: Archbishop of Canterbury, general discussion or Bank of England, discussion of economic outlook.

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