A Federal Police warning to the Coalition government over the conduct of one of its MPs was kept secret until it was too late for his constituents, writes Rex Patrick.
“Thank you, Mr Christensen.” Words I thought I’d never say, and especially never write.
The Australian Federal Police have been forced to release a June 2018 letter they wrote home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, stating that Queensland federal MP George Christensen, “undertakes extensive international travel to South East Asia during non-sitting periods and has engaged in activities that could potentially place him at risk of being targeted for compromise by foreign interest”.
Whatever Mr Christensen’s activities in South-East Asia were (and it’s probably best to steer clear of that topic), the battle over access to the AFP’s correspondence relating to the matter has been helpful in showing the public how moribund our FOI regime is.
Politics trumps good policy inside AFP
Jonathan Kearsley, a journalist for Channel 9, requested access to the Christensen letter in July 2019. The AFP refused access to it on three grounds.
The first and second grounds were, respectively, that the release of the letter would “cause damage to the security of the Commonwealth” and would have a “substantial adverse effect on the proper and efficient conduct of the operations of an agency”.
The reality is the only thing the letter reveals that’s remotely linked to either of those concerns is the fact that the AFP can conduct “thorough assessments” of allegations made about Australians travelling overseas.
That’s hardly a revelation. That’s hardly a capability the AFP wants to keep secret from Aussies intending to do wrong overseas.
Unsurprisingly, the Information Commissioner in reviewing the refusal to grant access to the letter found against the AFP.
The third ground was privacy. I accept, as all those involved did, that the matter involved an issue of privacy. But there is a test that sits atop a privacy claim; a public interest test that can trump privacy.
And there is clear and undisputable public interest in constituents of an MP knowing that their representative has a risk of compromise attached to his activities in the Parliament. Furthermore, there is a clear and undisputable public interest in the public more generally knowing about that risk too, especially in the House of Representatives, where the numbers were tight.
The Information Commissioner found the public interest was compelling.
Whatever the reasoning of the AFP’s independent FOI decision maker, there can be no excuse for the organisation to have not properly considered the assertions and arguments that there were advancing in the face of an Information Commissioner review.
The Federal Police Commissioner must take responsibility and explain how he allowed the AFP to oppose the letter’s disclosure in its submissions to the Information Commissioner’s review. He must explain the actions of the AFP, because it looks very much as though, most inappropriately, politics triumphed over policy and law.
An FOI request delayed is transparency denied
Another concern in all of this is the three years it took the Information Commissioner to conduct her review. What a disgrace. The FOI Act is intended to facilitate timely access to information. Delay is the enemy of FOI.
This FOI request was made at the start of the last Parliament. It yielded an answer only in the new Parliament. With Mr Christensen having now left the Parliament, the release of the letter now is moot.
The Information Commissioner must be asked, “Is this a standard you accept?” She shouldn’t.
When it comes to government, information is the currency of power. In that regard the Information Commissioner shortchanged Kearsley, the constituents of the federal seat of Dawson, and anyone in Australia who cares about issues of government transparency and integrity.
Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader, Patrick can be contacted on Twitter at @MrRexPatrick and www.transparencywarrior.com.au and on Facebook and LinkedIn