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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Will 'Blue books' inform public discussion and debate?

Those confident of a place on the front bench in Canberra will be starting to look for and through the Blue briefing books, and journalists and others on the outside will be readying Freedom of Information applications, keen to see the state of things as outlined by the public service. It will be interesting to see how this pans out-an early test on the 'trust' thing?

In 2010 Treasury was first to release a redacted version of the brief, with others following although Foreign Affairs and Trade took a year. (Addendum-see this later post on a recent OAIC decision that I wasn't aware of and explores the FOI issues in detail.)

The Treasury brief informed discussion and debate at the time with Michael Stutchbury then of The Australian commenting that 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."

My view back then:  
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.

It remains the same.The Kiwis show how to do it - by publishing the briefs on the internet.

However the Hawke review, without much in the way of analysis and no mention of contribution to debate and other public interest arguments, recommends a blanket exemption for incoming government briefs, and for question time and Senate estimates briefs as well. That isn't the law as it stands today-although it is in Queensland-so not much help to FOI decision makers at this stage.

In the lead up to state elections in NSW, Victoria and South Australia wily public servants at the center of things in premier's departments sought to put a cap on things by asking agencies to prepare the briefs for cabinet consideration, thus ensuring the cabinet exemption would apply. The Information Commissioner in NSW found parts were 'purely factual' and didn't qualify and some interesting material submitted to the Premier was released subsequently.

The SA Ombudsman found some briefs didn't meet the cabinet document test and for those that did, 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.

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