news Technology media outlet Delimiter has filed a Freedom of Information request for the ‘Blue Book’ incoming ministerial briefing provided to new Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, following recent decisions which have seen similar documents released by a number of other Federal Government departments.
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 Fifield’s case, the Blue Book ministerial briefing is particularly important, as it will detail the current state of play within the Government with respect to key policies and projects such as the National Broadband Network. Fifield also took over responsibility for copyright and Internet piracy policy as part of his appointment, with the Arts portfolio returning to the Communications Ministry at the time.
The Department of Communications and the Arts has previously refused a similar request.
In 2013, Delimiter sought access to the Blue Book briefing provided when Malcolm Turnbull was appointed Communications Minister. At the time, Delimiter successfully crowdfunded $2,877 from readers to pay the fees to have the Freedom of Information request processed.
The Department acknowledged that there was a public interest argument for releasing Turnbull’s briefing and that the release of the document “would be consistent with the objects of the FOI Act, which include increasing scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of the government’s activities.”
However, ultimately the briefing was not released as the Department judged it releated to deliberative thinking provided by the Department. The Department argued that releasing the document would undermine the development of a relationship between the public service and the Government which would see advice provided on a trust basis.
Since that time, however, a number of other judgments have been made that may influence the Department’s thinking on the matter.
For example, in December 2015 the Treasury released its briefing document provided to incoming Treasurer Scott Morrison, as the result of a FOI request.
Also in December, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal ordered the Attorney-General’s Department to release a portion of the incoming briefing provided to Attorney-General George Brandis in 2013.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus argued that there was a clear public interest argument in the briefing document being released.
Dreyfus said, according to The Mandarin, that the document provide an important overview of the state of the nation at the time the new government takes office and helps inform public policy debate”. Dreyfus also noted that his own incoming ministerial brief was publicly released when he became Attorney-General.
“Public debate should be informed by the expert advice of government agencies which their taxes pay for. Honest governments have nothing to hide,” Dreyfus reportedly said.
Furthermore, one argument made by the Department of Communications in 2013 when it decided not to release Turnbull’s Blue Book would appear to no longer apply. At the time, the Department noted that the release of the document had the potential to create controversy and conflict “early in the term of a new government”.
The Coalition administration is no longer regarded as “new” at this point and is actually seeking re-election.
Furthermore, the Department of Communications and the Arts now appears to have a strong working relationship with the Coalition Government. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — the former Communications Minister — has appointed former Department of Communications Secretary Drew Clarke as his permanent chief of staff.
Delimiter believes the release of Fifield’s briefing would serve the public interest. Delimiter is a media outlet strongly concerned with communications policy debate and would publish the briefing document immediately if it was released. This would enhance the quality of the public debate over policy areas which the Minister oversees.
Delimiter has also made the argument to the Department that the incoming Government in 2013 made transparency a goal of its administration of key projects in the Communications portfolio such as the NBN.
As such, Delimiter contends that much of the information containing in the incoming ministerial briefing provided to Minister Fifield would already be in the public domain and could be harmlessly released.
Image credit: Parliamentary broadcasting