news The Attorney-General’s Department has rejected an appeal for a Freedom of Information request which would have seen the incoming ministerial briefing (known as the ‘Blue Book’) provided to new Attorney-General George Brandis, censoring the release of the entire document.
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.
Over the next several years, the Attorney-General’s Department will examine a number of issues which are of intense public interest, ranging from data retention and surveillance to reform of Australia’s copyright legislation to the issue of online copyright infringement (Internet piracy).
Because of the importance of these issues and the need to ensure that both the Australian public and other sides of politics are fully informed about these issues, in October Delimiter sought access under Freedom of Information laws to the Blue Book ministerial briefing provided to new Coalition Attorney-General George Brandis.
Last month the department initially rejected the Freedom of Information application. At the time, the Attorney-General’s Department, decided to block the release of Brandis’ ‘Blue Book’ entirely. “… If the document is disclosed, I consider there would be a substantial adverse effect on the Department’s ability to establish and maintain a good working relationship with the new Minister,” wrote Emily Roper, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Attorney-General’s Department, in a letter to Delimiter on the issue.
Delimiter sought, in the first instance, an internal review by the Department of Roper’s decision, noting that it was likely that a close examination of the Attorney-General’s ‘Blue Book’ would find that substantial portions of the document are not controversial and would be suitable for public release. This suggestion is based on experience reading other public incoming ministerial briefing documents. In addition, precedent suggested that it was not unusual for departments to release their incoming ministerial briefing documents, with several departments having approved similar releases in the past.
“Blocking the entire ‘Blue Book’ document from release is not consistent with the approach taken by other departments over the past several years, and ignores the significant public interest arguments for its release,” Delimiter wrote in its appeal letter. “Furthermore, there is substantial reason to believe that significant portions of the document are not controversial.”
However, in a new letter sent to Delimiter late last week (and available online in full in PDF format), Louise Glanville, Deputy Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, supported the initial decision to block the release of the Blue Book.
Glanville is the same departmental staffer who told a Senate Estimates hearing in mid-November that the Attorney-General’s Department had removed PDFs previously published on its website as part of its Freedom of Information disclosure log because they did not meet web “accessibility” guidelines and were hurting the website’s overall accessibility rating.
In her statement of reasons for rejecting the appeal, Glanville said precedent had nothing to do with her decision.
“In my view, the starting point for the consideration of whether access to the document would contrary to the public interest is not whether documents of a similar nature have been disclosed in the past,” wrote Glanville. “The obligation of the decision-maker is rather to apply their best understanding of the provisions of the FOI Act and to balance the relevant public interest considerations using their knowledge of both the content of the document and surrounding circumstances at the time of making the decision.”
Glanville re-affirmed the department’s initial decision that the disclosure of the Blue Book would “cause significant detriment to the ability of this department to provide frank and honest advice to a new Minister”.
As with other similar applications, Glanville also cited the view of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, when in Opposition, that the release of incoming ministerial briefings would contravene Westminister political traditions.
Delimiter has decided not to appeal this specific FOI application for Brandis’ Blue Book further. Both initial decisions on this issue have referred to decisions made by the Office of the Australian Information Commission. Based on prior experience, Delimiter believes it is unlikely that the OAIC would overturn the two initial decisions with respect to this document.