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News, Telecommunications - Written by Renai LeMay on Thursday, October 3, 2013 11:40 - 23 Comments
Turnbull’s Blue Book FoI funded: Thank you and next steps
The attempt to crowdfund a Freedom of Information campaign for the massive, 545 page ‘Blue Book’ departmental briefing received by new Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull last month is now fully funded and going ahead. This article is to thank readers for their support and to outline the next steps for the project.
As you may have noticed, yesterday Delimiter kicked off what we believed at the time to be a relatively modest crowdfunding initiative. Because of the significant nature of the change the Coalition is planning to enact in the next several years to Labor’s National Broadband Network project, as well as other key issues in the Communications portfolio, we believe it is of significant public interest that the Government release the full text of the Ministerial briefing which Malcolm Turnbull received from his new department when he was sworn in as Communications Minister last month.
This document consists of everything which the department believes Turnbull (and his staff) will need to know in his role; and we believe it will be important to public debate regarding the NBN and the Communications portfolio that the public has access to that information too. As Turnbull himself stated shortly before taking office:
“We will bring the public into our confidence … The NBN debate is not over – but I am determined to ensure that from now on it is at least fully informed.”
However, what we didn’t expect was the significant groundswell of public support for the crowdfunding campaign which resulted after we kicked it off. The campaign was funded in record time — just six hours — and is now over budget to the tune of an extra $500. In addition, the campaign is also being covered extensively by the mainstream media, with articles in The Age and The Australian chronicling its success, as well as tech websites like iTWire and Gizmodo. I’ve also been turning down interviews with radio and TV stations on the issue this morning in favour of getting my actual work done.
Firstly, I would like to express my deep appreciation to everyone who helped this campaign succeed. Your support will directly increase the transparency of the new Federal Government when it comes to the NBN project and the Communications portfolio as a whole, and I can assure you that Turnbull himself is aware of your efforts.
But your support has done more than just directly assist with this specific project. Perhaps the more significant aspect of yesterday’s events is that the quick success of the campaign has opened the eyes of many in Australia’s media landscape to the ability of crowdfunding platforms such as Pozible to use widespread interest in an issue to enhance government transparency.
I would not be surprised at all to see other journalists following this path in future; leveraging the mass power of their readers to hold powerful figures to account. Indeed, Delimiter wasn’t even the first to use this kind of platform; last month the Pirate Party Australia also used Pozible to fund a Freedom of Information request on an issue regarding the controversial and secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
In terms of next steps, the first move which we will be making will be to contact the Department of Communications today and ask them to reduce their projected FoI fees. The crowdfunding campaign alone demonstrates a strong public interest aspect to this campaign, and there are grounds in the FoI legislation for fees to be reduced in public interest cases.
Secondly, since the campaign launched, we have been informed that fee reductions have been achieved in similar past cases involving the Department.
In addition, again, given the strong public interest demonstrated yesterday, we have also contacted the office of Malcolm Turnbull and requested that the Minister consider releasing at least portions of the Blue Book voluntarily, as some other departments have done in the past. Not all of the Blue Book will contain sensitive information; and Turnbull has already committed to a higher degree of transparency during his time in office.
This FoI request is going to tie up, by the department’s own estimate, more than 100 hours of public servants’ time in decision-making processes about what can and can’t be released publicly. It makes sense for Turnbull’s office to proactively release any portions of the Blue Book it deems as being harmless.
After we receive an answer from the Department on any potential fee reduction, we will then use the Pozible funding to fully fund the FoI request for Turnbull’s Ministerial briefing papers.
A number of readers have noted that we have received around $500 more through the crowdfunding campaign than the $2,070 we requested. So what will we do with the excess money?
Firstly, we need to await on the Department of Communication’s final decisions on costs. This will determine how much of the funding we will use. Given past experience, and also feedback we have received from other journalists, it appears likely that a significant proportion of Turnbull’s Blue Book will be returned redacted (black marker). It is very likely that we will appeal this kind of redaction, if we can see grounds for doing so under the Freedom of Information Act. There are, in general, two levels of review — internal departmental review and review by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.
Neither review process generally entails a fee, however. This means that after the Department has made its final decision on costing, we will likely have an amount left over from the Pozible campaign. While we’re not quite sure how the Pozible system works, it is our intention to return this funding to all campaign contributors in the proportion which they originally donated. There’s no justification for using the money for any other purpose.
One last thing: This isn’t going to be a quick process. It usually takes departments several months to fully respond to detailed FoI requests such as this one. But we’ll keep readers updated every step of the way as to what’s happening behind the scenes.
We’d like to end this article with two points. The first is, once again, to thank readers for contributing to the often difficult process of keeping those in power accountable, especially on such a pivotal issue as the NBN. Your efforts are making a big impact. And secondly, we’d like to encourage Malcolm Turnbull to take note of the public interest in this issue.
Mr Turnbull, many Delimiter readers are serious enough about government transparency in your portfolio that they’ve already pulled money out of their own pocket to ensure it. How about at least meeting them halfway, coming through on your very public commitment to transparency, and releasing those sections of your ministerial Blue Book which are relatively harmless?
You were right in September when you said the NBN debate would continue, and you were also right when you said it was important that all sides were fully informed. Well, here’s a very obvious chance to match your words to your actions. I assure you any assistance you can impart in this area will be received very favourably.
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