news The Opposition has confirmed it will not consent to key Labor cabinet documents related to the National Broadband Network being publicly released, in comments which let Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull off the hook from doing the same.
When new Ministers are sworn in to lead government portfolios, they receive extensive briefings on those portfolios from their departmental bureaucrats. Known as ‘Red Books’ for a returning Government or ‘Blue Books’ for a new Government, the briefing documents contain a wealth of information about the new Minister’s portfolio, commitments, decisions and so on.
In Turnbull’s case, the Blue Book ministerial briefing is particularly important, because the post of Communications Minister will be a critical one for the Australian Government over the next several years. This is because the Coalition has promised to radically reshape Labor’s National Broadband Network, despite the fact that Labor’s NBN policy has always enjoyed overwhelming popular support amongst the general population. In addition, there are a number of other key issues in the Communications portfolio which Turnbull will need to deal with, ranging from Internet censorship and filtering, digital rights, media law and so on.
Because of the pivotal nature of the role, on 25 September Delimiter sought access under FoI laws to the ‘Blue book’ of briefing documents which was provided by the Department of Communications to Turnbull when he was sworn in as Minister. This document, which is 545 pages long (according to the department), consists of everything which the department believes Turnbull will need to know. The Department has blocked it from being released, but Delimiter has pledged to appeal the decision, as well as appealing similar decisions by other departments such as the Attorney-General’s Department.
Speaking in Parliament last week (YouTube video), Turnbull claimed the decision was not his as to whether the document should be released publicly. “The decisions about incoming ministers briefs are taken not by the minister but by the senior public servants that take them,” the Liberal MP said. “But I would be prepared — very, very happy — to encourage my secretary to release that incoming ministers brief if the Leader of the Opposition were prepared to consent to release all of the cabinet papers relating to the NBN.”
Turnbull appeared to especially be referring to a report produced by investment bank Lazard back in 2010 that warned the then-Labor administration of major risks to the NBN plan. Details about the report were recently revealed by The Australian newspaper, but the report itself has never been released publicly. It was one of a number of reports commissioned by the Government at the time and presents one view of the NBN. Other reports presented different views.
Subsequent to Turnbull’s comments, Delimiter invited Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to comment on whether the Opposition would meet Turnbull’s demand and release the Lazard report and other key NBN documents compiled under the previous Labor administration.
Shorten did not respond to Delimiter’s request for comment, but punted the question to Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare. Today, Clare issued a statement saying:
“This is not the Government that they promised to be. In Opposition Malcolm Turnbull said NBN Co was more secretive than the Kremlin. Now he is in Government he is refusing to release the brief he was given when he became a Minister. Previous Ministers have done this and so should he.”
“Cabinet documents are kept confidential by Governments of both persuasions. If Mr Turnbull wants to change that convention, he probably should run it by the Prime Minister.”
It’s a shame the Opposition has declined to call Turnbull’s bluff on this issue. As I wrote last week:
“Labor has little to lose from releasing the Lazard report (and indeed, other documents relating to NBN advice given to cabinet) at this point. It might as well get these documents out on the public record so that they won’t keep on coming around to haunt the party in the pages of The Australian every so often. Plus, I’m sure that the Lazard report isn’t quite as single-faceted as it’s being painted, and that it actually contains a variety of advice. It would be good to get this complexity out there — the more information we have, the better the policy formation process will be.
Plus, by releasing the Lazard report and perhaps a couple of other key NBN documents, which are really only of historical interest at this point, Labor will have a lever to pressure Turnbull to be more transparent and release more documents himself, including the Blue Book. I remind Labor that Turnbull has already promised publicly to be more transparent , saying in late September:
” … our commitment is, our focus is, to have a much greater level of transparency and openness. I know there’s a lot of politics associated with the broadband issue but much more than there ever ought to have been and there’s been a huge amount of misinformation and spin about broadband and what various technologies can offer and so my focus and my commitment is that we deal in fact. Fact, not fiction, no more spin, fact. That’s what Australians need to know so they can make informed decisions.”
Calling Turnbull’s bluff and releasing the Lazard report and a couple of other NBN documents would force Turnbull to consider releasing his Blue Book. This would have the effect of embarassing the Minister and driving a little stake in his relationship with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has been public about the fact that he does not want the incoming ministers’ briefings released.