news Communications Minister Mitch Fifield today released a version of the ‘Blue Book’ incoming ministerial briefing he received from his department when he became Communications Minister, with the sections relating to the National Broadband Network having been heavily redacted.
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.
As Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull refused to release his Blue Book briefing.
Today, following FOI requests from Delimiter and other organisations, the Department of Communications and the Arts released Minister Fifield’s Blue Book. The document is lengthy and has been released in a number of parts, relating separately to Senator Fifield’s communications and arts portfolios.
However, the document heavily redacts sections dealing with the National Broadband Network, which is the most high-profile portfolio responsibility that Fifield holds.
For example, the first seven pages of the Blue Book briefing, dealing with immediate portfolio issues — many of which are likely to relate to the NBN — have been completely redacted under Section 47C of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows documents to be exempt from disclosure if they relate to deliberative processes of a department or a Minister.
The rest of the document is similarly littered with S47C exemptions, particularly in areas relating to the NBN.
The redactions mean that it is effectively impossible to ascertain what advice the Department has provided to the incoming Communications Minister about virtually any aspect of the NBN project or the wider policy environment in which the project operates.
A cursory examination of the Arts portfolio side of the Blue Book briefing reveals that little information about the Government’s Internet piracy or Internet censorship-related programs has been included in the Blue Book briefing; or if so, it has largely been redacted.
In large part, the broad swathe of information provided as part of the Blue Book release is information that is already in the public domain, meaning that the document has little value in serving the public interest by levelling the debate and giving the public access to a similar level of information about the NBN policy and project as the Communications Minister of the day.
What we’re seeing here is very clear, and very consistent with Minister Fifield’s approach as a politician.
The Minister appears to have taken the approach of avoiding controversy by withholding the release of his Blue Book briefing under FOI legislation, at a time when some of his colleagues have already released their own documents.
However, at the same time, any interesting information (as far as I can see) actually included in the document has been broadly redacted.
With this approach, Fifield neuters both anyone seeking to attack him for not releasing the document, while also neutering the impact of releasing any potentially sensitive information. It’s a classic Fifield-style approach: You comply, but in a way that you choose, thus avoiding any real public controversy. It’s a smart political approach, and demonstrates how Fifield has gotten to his current position in high office.
It’s very hard to imagine the careful and patient Fifield making the sort of gaffes we’ve seen from fellow Ministers such as Jamie Briggs and Peter Dutton recently … Fifield is far too smart for that.
However, of course there are significant public interest issues with this approach. For starters, it is far from clear that it is at all legitimate for the Department to redact whole pages — even whole sections! — of the Blue Book to keep them from the public eye. It would have been much more appropriate to redact individual words, where they were sensitive, or perhaps paragraphs.
This approach would have met the demands of the FOI Act in a more appropriate way.
By redacting the document as it has, the Department has shown a high level of disdain for the aims of the FOI Act, and for the cause of transparency in the public interest.
But then, that is hardly unusual. In 2016, it is readily apparent that the Freedom of Information Act has very little bite and effectiveness. It is no longer a useful tool for getting information out of the Federal Government; its main use appears to be mainly reminding the bureaucrats in the public service and advisors in Ministers’ offices that the public exists at all.
As one further note: It is important to see here how the Government works in real life in terms of FOI requests. Technically it is up to the Department — not the Minister — to decide whether to release documents under FOI law. Yet we see here a situation where only two years ago, the Department categorically blocked the release of a Minister’s Blue Book. Today it has reversed that decision and released one.
How are these opposing decisions to be reconciled through interpretation of the FOI Act? The truth is that they probably cannot. The opposing decisions just two years apart make it clear that the Minister, and the political situation and broader landscape at hand, have an influence in whether documents are released under FOI law. That is a troubling situation, and one that I hope FOI decision-makers within the Government are considering seriously.
Image credit: Office of Mitch Fifield