Fifield redacts large chunks of NBN info in ‘Blue Book’ release


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


    • I think this is exactly the sort of “transparency” Turnbull is looking for. Everything is foggy, right until you smash headfirst into the brick wall a few hundred metres in front of you…

  1. “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 entire sections – pages!!! – having been heavily redacted.

    Who – working to supposedly serve the interest of Australians – needs to actively hide practically all of their described duties in order to save face?

    What kind of fool would endorse a party which endorses this behaviour???

    • @Hotcakes – “What kind of fool would…”

      All of us. Our adversarial Westminster government degenerated long ago–oh, say 1970 close enough, maybe earlier–into Executive government by Parliament, effectively bypassing the need for the PS, relegating that to office staff.

      Coupled with Compulsory Voting which is stridently supported by all major Parties–Lib, Lab, National, Greens–and most minor Parties, we all happily endorse any attack on democratic government.

      It’s worth reminding yourselves of the reasons we now have Compulsory Voting.

      • We don’t have compulsory voting.

        We have compulsory attendance of voting booths. You don’t have to vote.

        The alternative is a situation of a significant proportion of the population not voting at all. Which means that only those “impassioned” enough about something to vote will vote. Which means more extremist behaviour.

        The issue is more our 2 party preferred system. Which forces our parties into adversarial behaviour, except where they both choose to agree on something, at which point there is no choice at all.

        Which means we end up with extreme right and left behaviour, when the better choice is usually the moderate centre.

      • I much prefer the compulsory voting attendance we have currently.
        A system that fails the way the us system does is not one I want to see.

        I prefer a “least evil” approach, to a “most motivated” approach. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and they can often fail in similar ways (Abbotts campaign would have ousted labor in both cases) but the coming election and the apathy of the electorate right now would make turnbulls return a guarantee without compulsory voting.

        With it? He is far from gone, but there is the slightest of chances Bill or whoever might make a dent.

  2. I see it differently, what Fifield has done by redacting the entire section regarding the NBN is that they do indeed have something to hide about the NBN, it could be how troubled the GBE is, it could be anything.

    Basically, what Fifield has done is given a lot of ammunition to the broader community with regards to the NBN, why did he choose to redact it, etc…

  3. Didn’t TA preach that this government was going to be one of transparency?

    It appears the transparency is only in one direction. They vacuum up all our private (meta)data (spending our coin to do so) but we see nothing but black lines over the parts they want to keep private.

    The transparency should only be in one direction. The other fucking direction.

  4. I find it hard to believe all those white pages in the released docs were purely deliberative matters that contained no operational information or purely factual material (both of which are not considered deliberative matters under 47C and must be released).

    Problem is, how can you know that which was withheld, was withheld correctly under 47C? Looking at the expanse of white pages, I find it hard to believe all that information redacted has been redacted in the spirit of the FOI Act. :/

  5. It would be great to see an independent body which oversaw FOI requests like this. Otherwise there can be no real faith that things like redactions are justifiable.

    • “Otherwise there can be no real faith that things like redactions are justifiable.”

      Only the world’s most optimistic optimist would think anything useful would be released. If you need any indication that these people don’t consider themselves to be “public servants” but rather a ruling class, look no further. I’m sure it’s for our own good.

  6. FoI request on any communication relating to the FoI request for the blue book might be revealing.

    • Legally they’d be very hard pressed to redact those communications in the blanket way they’ve approached this one I’m sure.

  7. One can only surmise that if the details were positive (and as a consequence, politically helpful) they’d be released with bells and whistles, but….

    Welcome once again to the fuck up which is fraudband…

  8. Smells fishy. Whatever is in the Blue Book is obviously not good. Why redact large sections about the NBN if it was worth showing? Another move to save themselves from public criticism. No regard for the FOI Act or public interest whatsoever. I really do wonder how they aren’t already in jail. A concrete wall is more transparent than this government despite their claims for greater transparency.

    • Well, Project Bluebook was a US task force to collect UFO observations. So if we have Project Black Book then Canberra is full of alien life forms who see us as enslaved, inferior scum to be kept in the dark.

  9. Surely the FIO request had to be rejected.

    The blue book had a photo of Peter Dutton putting some of his treasured Queensland bruiser phone books into a node cabinet. Jamie Briggs was also in the photo as he stood on a park bench trying to catch a footy while mooning to an old lady.

    Believe me folks, some Canberra Arseholes and their secret books are best kept classified.

  10. Renai, you get around in rarefied circles, is there no interest from other journalists in the goings on at NBNCo?

    Is there really no interest from outside the tech journalism sector in a $50+ billion dollar infrastructure project that is shrouded in secrecy and yet so obviously going off the rails?

    It certainly seems so.

  11. This is where the normal political far right lackey, yes men, apple polisher (yes I could have put it more bluntly, but that may be deemed somewhat inappropriate… ;) who claim to be totally impartial because they are (l)Libertarians, can try to look unbiased by saying yeah, fuck the government…as they have done in the past, but then laud the far right government yet again, over and over :/


  12. What a load of (Redacted) piece of (redacted) . So much for Transparency by that mob of (redacted) (redacted)

  13. You really do have some audacity Renai LeMay, Mr Turnbull made it quite clear back in 2013.
    You’ve had your democracy now F_ _ K OFF.
    How can you expect anything less from his ministers.

    • that was pretty close the thought of mine when i read this paragraph –

      “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.”

      even more insulting the public have to PAY the government to realise they exist. in reality, it really now is “youve had your democracy. now show us your money, or fuck off.”

      “oh he actually fronted some money? alright here you go, its not what you wanted but its all you are getting. now, really, fuck off.” Shades of Joh all over again.

      all they care about is money and election season.

      • lets hold him to this, if Labor win the election he is compelled to stop calling for any technology change or alteration to rollout plan because the people will have spoken!

      • He’s a hypocrite, he’ll spin some b.s. 3 word slogan about faster cheaper blah blah..

      • it was interesting reading back on the comments of that article.

        no wait, Fibroids comments and how we were all so hopeful, even i! that the new govt wouldnt make a complete clusterfuck of it. its depressing reading back and knowing the reality two years later on……

      • Yeah love HC comment
        “we’ve got at least a good three years of awesome copper entertainment ahead of us.”
        Its so true

  14. Transparency puns were funny the first few times, now WHERE THE FUCK IS THE NBN REFERENDUM?

  15. Its IMHO totally to be expected. This was after all why Fifield got the portfolio in the first place. He can be trusted to keep things underwraps and avoid controversy prior to the election.

    If he doesn’t get some sweet portfolio or gig after the election I’d be very surprised.

  16. The whole mob are an abomination to civil rights and moral decency,the bastards should be locked up or another Bastille is required.

    • It’s the bit after the Bastille I’d like to see. “For a time, executions by guillotine were a popular entertainment that attracted great crowds of spectators. Vendors sold programs listing the names of those scheduled to die. Many people came day after day and vied for the best locations from which to observe the proceedings; knitting women (tricoteuses) formed a cadre of hardcore regulars, inciting the crowd. Parents often brought their children.” (Wikipedia)

      Yep, that would do nicely…….

      • With what is happening worldwide with climate and weather and geological activity is part of the bundle, organisations and media that have been deceiving and manipulating may be in an increasingly parlous condition.
        This Cu based (inc the C of HFC) Mish mash is particularly vulnerable

  17. It’s just the Ministry of Information building the communication highway fit for 1984.

  18. With apologies to Terry Gilliam…

    “Excuse me, Dawson, can you put me through to Mr. Helpmann’s office?”
    “I’m afraid I can’t sir. You have to go through the proper channels.”
    “And you can’t tell me what the proper channels are, because that’s classified information?”
    “I’m glad to see the Ministry’s continuing its tradition of recruiting the brightest and best, sir.”
    “Thank you, Dawson.”

  19. I wonder if at a later date say next time Labor is in power this document can be released in full followed by prosecutions if the redaction weren’t in accordance with FoI act.
    I know it will never happen but this is kind of action that needs taking if the FoI act is to actually have any teeth.

  20. How this is consistent with expectations given to the NBN by the then Minister of Communications, Mr Malcolm Turnbull in his 8 Apr 2014 statement of expectations (SOE) which reads “The government requires a high degree of transparency from NBN Co in its communication with the public and Parliament”.

  21. Do you see the picture at the top of this page ? well it should be removed as it is obscene , fancy showing a picture of assholes, totally disgusting.

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