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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Challenge to refusal to release incoming government brief will see "Frank and Candid" put to the test

In a Freedom of Information review application in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal today, Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus QC challenged the Government's refusal to release the Incoming Government Brief Attorney-General Senator Brandis received from his department on taking office in 2013.

The AAT challenge comes 12 months after Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan substantially upheld the AGD decision to refuse access to the brief (Parnell &  Dreyfus). At the time he used similar reasoning (Crowe) to refuse access to unreleased parts of the brief prepared in 2010 for then incoming Prime Minister Gillard. 

It's an important opportunity to test the public interest arguments accepted in those decisions - see my comments at the time - as "Frank and Candid" have since become some FOI decision makers' best friend.  

Attorney General's in this example managed to soak up sixteen months with "Frank and Candid" arguments before releasing most of the document when challenged. By that time it was three years old. There are plenty of others.

 Justice Annabelle Bennett, Deputy President of the AAT, is hearing the application.

I'm sure Deputy President Forgie's monumental decision (in pre 2010 reform days) and sceptical examination of "Frank and Candid" in McKinnon v Secretary Prime Minister and Cabinet [2007] AATA 1969 won't escape attention.

The Media Release from Mr Dreyfus says:
"(Incoming Government Briefs) set out the policy challenges faced by a new government and advise on how the government can go about implementing its agenda. These briefs provide an important overview of the state of the nation at the time the new government takes office and help inform public policy debate", said Mr Dreyfus.

"Labor published IGBs from a range of agencies after the 2010 election and also released incoming Attorney-General’s briefs in 2012 and 2013. Public debate should be informed by the expert advice of government agencies which their taxes pay for. Honest governments have nothing to hide."

The Abbott Government refused Mr Dreyfus' FOI request for the Attorney-General's Department's IGB. It continued to resist disclosure through a review conducted by the Information Commissioner, forcing Mr Dreyfus to go all the way to a contested hearing in the AAT.

The principle of open government the FOI Act upholds was reinforced by amendments made in 2010. These reforms should be respected by the current Government as an important part of upholding the rule of law."said Mr Ben Slade, partner at Maurice Blackburn, whose firm represented Mr Dreyfus in the AAT.

"Unfortunately, Senator Brandis is openly hostile to FOI laws", said Mr Dreyfus.In Senate Estimates in November 2013 the Secretary of his Department admitted that the Government was taking a "hardball" approach to disclosure. Senator Brandis has also sought to abolish Australia's independent FOI watchdog, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. Though the necessary legislation has stalled in the Senate, Senator Brandis has imposed harsh budget cuts on the body and refused to appoint new statutory office-holders to the Office, which will soon be completely vacant.

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