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Friday, October 04, 2013

Incoming government briefs: what's changed since 2010?

The first Blue Book access issue of the 2013 new government season has emerged with Delimiter told that its Freedom of Information application for the briefing book in the hands of Communications Minister Turnbull will cost $2072 to process. And quickly crowd-raising the money.

We could be in for a different season this year compared to 2010. Then, following Treasury's 2007 and 2010 leads, government agencies released or published mostly redacted versions of the incoming government briefs. 

Foreign Affairs did manage to spin it out for a year!

This time around we aren't hearing transparency talked up-so far.

Tone at the very top in some cases is trending in the opposite direction.

The recent decision by Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan, although leaving open the issue of access to 2013 briefs, canvassed the range of issues relevant to disclosure. The first time observation that a 'class claim' could be entertained for exemption of certain types of documents (incoming government briefs?) as deliberative process documents won't have gone unnoticed.

 Back in 2010 Prime Minister Abbott had strong views on a related issue, publication of Treasury costings of Liberal policies, during the days of uncertainty about the formation of a government:
TONY ABBOTT: This is very important Lyndal, because you know, our system depends on public servants being able to give free, frank and fearless advice to government and that means the advice has got to remain confidential. And what we've got here is a desperate Prime Minister trashing the Westminster system in an attempt to hold onto power.

LYNDAL CURTIS: So you don't want that information released?

TONY ABBOTT: Well if, if, if the most confidential public service advice can be casually released just to help this government to hang onto power, I mean they are trashing the Westminster system in a desperate attempt to hold onto power...The conventions are there for a reason, they are there because if you are going to have efficient and effective government the public service has got to be able to give confidential advice...Now you just can't have this advice strewn around like confetti because you have a desperate government desperately trying to cling to power and in the process trashing the Westminster conventions. But what cannot happen, you cannot have the frank and fearless advice of the public service prejudiced by releasing it to people for whom it was never intended. I mean this completely undermines and compromises our whole system of government.
More on point, Opposition frontbencher then, now Minister for Trade and Investment Robb said at the time incoming government briefs warranted state secret status if a public service 'down tools" was to be avoided:
''The red and blue books are fundamental to successful transition to government, and that's another important plank of convention in the way in which our government runs,'' he said. ''That material is based on frank and fearless … advice by the public service, and if they thought that could become public knowledge, they would not conduct that sort of assessment again.''
And sitting unattended so far in the in tray of Attorney General Brandis, Dr Hawke's FOI review report recommends a specific conditional exemption for the briefs.

There are counter arguments of course, particularly that the public interest in disclosure of those parts of briefs that contain information about the state of the nation or departmental slices of it is strong. The South Australian Ombudsman's observations about the state equivalent documents, held in that case to be cabinet documents, apply equally to documents about national affairs:
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
In any event in Canberra this year there is potential for all this to be a drawn out FOI battleground. And something of an early test regarding the need to address the trust deficit.

Charges might be round one. Those in the queue with applications for the Communications brief have apparently received a letter asking for a deposit against  the estimated cost of processing their application - the same $2072 as indicated to Delimiter. While probably technically within the law the applicants and the court of public opinion might see this as a bit rich. 

1 comment:

  1. There are also a bunch of requests pending on Right To Know for incoming government briefs: