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  • News, Telecommunications - Written by 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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    1. Drew
      Posted 03/10/2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink | Reply

      For the excess money, put it towards your ongoing journalism, to keep the site running or to place an analysis in Delimiter 1.0 instead of Delimiter 2.0, or towards a future FOI request.

      • Posted 03/10/2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink | Reply

        No, Delimiter is a profit-making commercial company — the funds were solicited for this FoI and this FoI only, and cannot be used for other purposes. That would be unethical.

        • jasmcd
          Posted 03/10/2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

          Renai Lemay does not have what it takes to be modern politician. All this talk of ethics and actually carrying through with it!

          • Posted 03/10/2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink | Reply

            I know, right — clearly he’s out of step with modern reality!

        • Rich
          Posted 03/10/2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink | Reply

          You have permission to spend my $5 on either Beer and/or Burger Rings. Choose wisely.

          • Shannon Pace
            Posted 03/10/2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink | Reply

            +1 for burger rings… :)

        • Lionel
          Posted 03/10/2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink | Reply

          Could you use it for a FOI request for all pre election correspondence between Turnbull and Telstra? :)

    2. Ryan
      Posted 03/10/2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink | Reply

      just an idea instead of returning the money you could keep it for the next election and use it for the next book ?

      • Connor
        Posted 03/10/2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink | Reply

        Put it in a high interest account and spend it on FOI’ing ALL of the NBN documents. :)

    3. RichardU
      Posted 03/10/2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Given the demonstrable pubic interest in this information, it is to be hoped those charged with wielding the blue pencil will do so with a sensible and light touch.

      Their every stroke will be scrutinised in front of and by a somewhat anxious audience.

    4. bryan
      Posted 03/10/2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Take Malcolm to lunch and bend his ear.

    5. Simon
      Posted 03/10/2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Although I understand you wanting to get your work done and within Delimiter time must be a valuable resource, but I feel that turning down interviews is a missed opportunity to get the message out there of exactly why you’ve done this and what you want to achieve from it. The more attention that goes onto Malcolm regarding whether he’s going down the right path or not with FTTN the better, and tbh, there’s a lack of people speaking up for FTTP.

      I’m personally wanting to know whether he drew up any deals with Telstra in the run-up to the election along the lines of ‘you get to take over the reigns of NBNco when we sell them, or you’ll get most of the construction contracts’ in place of the copper not adding much, if any, cost onto the existing contracts. Of course, such a shady deal wouldn’t be released to the public because that’s simply not in the public’s interest…

      • JayZ
        Posted 03/10/2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink | Reply

        I agree with the comment about you turning down the interviews.

        This would have been a sensational opportunity to get the message across to the mass media of how important the NBN is and why are so keen to see it done well and with transparency. While I appreciate your work commitments, I think getting that message across through interviews is probably even more important than trying to obtain a document that in all likelihood only those reading tech websites will ever read.

        I urge you to reconsider the interviews for the sake of the NBN battle we have fought all these years. Turnbull will pay more attention to mass media exposure to the average Joe out there than the tech crowd (and that is pretty obvious by now!!)

        • Posted 03/10/2013 at 4:43 pm | Permalink | Reply

          I’m not a fan of journalists interviewing journalists and I’m not about to start doing that myself. There are plenty of other people who can act as spokespeople regarding the NBN — I’m not about to become a poster child.

          • jasmcd
            Posted 04/10/2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink | Reply

            That would be assuming that the perspective interviewers actually practice journalism instead of a series of he said she said segments in the format of news.

            I deplore the feigned outrage and hyped crusades that have recently been used to great effect to influence goverment and public discourse, and currently these are the types of voices who overwhelmingly seem to be interviewed by and engaged with the media.

            IMHO when so many people from the far extremes of the debate are far to ready to take center stage and enter into false debate, it is sad that a balanced and informed view point is kept silent.

    6. Observer
      Posted 03/10/2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Well, I think you should also be thanked for having had the idea and the initiative to get this thing going.
      Well done!

    7. Nich
      Posted 03/10/2013 at 6:45 pm | Permalink | Reply

      TBH, Renai, I assumed you’d use any remainder to cover hosting costs of the documents – I imagine you’ll get quite a few hits before it’s gradually mirrored around?

      • Posted 03/10/2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink | Reply

        I have industrial-grade hosting now, dude; Delimiter can handle pretty much anything ;)

    8. tinman_au
      Posted 03/10/2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Maybe give the folks that chipped in the chance to use it as a pool for future FOI’s? Maybe even have an on going system?

    9. David Jeisman
      Posted 03/10/2013 at 9:57 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Speaking for myself you can keep the 20% (or whatever % if it gets reduced) of $15. It’ll probably get eaten up in fees anyway. How do Pozible pay credit card fees, or did you have to foot that bill yourself?

    10. MarkD
      Posted 04/10/2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink | Reply

      Maybe use the excess funds to cover the printing costs for all the doners on low-speed, small-quota, pre-NBN connections who can’t afford to download the docs when they are released?

    11. Jamie Coleman
      Posted 04/10/2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink | Reply

      Have you thought about donating the extra money to EFF Australia?

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