Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has waved the white flag and agreed his office will process an FOI request for 197 days of his official diary. But along the way there’s been a betrayal of the public and RoboDebt style conduct in the heart of the PM’s own office. Rex Patrick reports.
In December last year, I requested access to 197 days of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s official diary. I wanted to know who was influencing the man we pay to lead our government.
When I made the request, I referred to a number of FOI diary cases in various Tribunals, and in particular the decision of Justice Jagot, now on the High Court, ordering then Attorney-General George Brandis to process an FOI application for 237 days of his diary. The applicant was Mark Dreyfus, now Attorney-General. Brandis appealed Justice Jagot’s decision to the Full Federal Court, and lost.
I thought my FOI request would be treated as routine. How wrong I was.
After first seeking to charge me $1344 to have the diary made public, which I reluctantly agreed to, the Prime Minister’s office changed their mind and told me that to process my request would be an unreasonable diversion of resources. In essence, the answer was, No! Go away!
But the Full Court has already said that the processing of 237 days Brandis’ diary by his 17 staff was in the public interest. How could the Prime Minister’s office, with its 55 staff and a greater public interest, knock my request back?
The answer is simple. They couldn’t, and they knew doing so was unlawful, but in a moment of RoboDebt culture, they consciously ignored the law.
One has to wonder what those in the PM’s office were thinking. With knowledge of the Full Court’s decision, they must have known they would lose any contest for access to Albanese’s diary? And of course, they have.
But along the way, they have borne the pain of multiple Senate Estimate and Senate Committee hearing swipes and numerous adverse media articles. MWM was in the forefront, along with The Conversation, Crikey, Sydney Morning Herald, The Saturday Paper and The Mandarin. And there was plenty of scathing comment on social media, with many taking note of how quickly Mr Albanese’s commitment to transparency had faded once he took high office.
It’s an issue that has really chipped away at any claims that Albanese differs from Scott Morrison when it comes to secrecy.
There was no political upside to not processing the diary request unless Albanese has had some truly embarrassing business meetings in his schedule – such as weekly afternoon tea with Alan Joyce?
Albanese ought to be questioning the quality of the advice coming from his office. This quite unnecessary FOI saga has damaged his transparency credentials. He might need to make a few changes in his office, even terminate some advisers, with ‘acts of political stupidity’ as the justification.
Last month, after a rumoured meeting of ministers at which the reputational damage of continued FOI obstruction was raised, the Prime Minister tried to settle the matter with Nine Media (who had asked for 100 days of the PM’s diary) and myself.
They offered Nine their full 100 days, which overlapped mine, and they offered me the same 100 says with an extra month of my choosing.
I refused to agree. I had the weight of a full Federal Court decision in my favour; no member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal was going to overturn that.
I rejected their offer, telling them I was happy for the issue to go to a contested and public hearing. I wanted to hear the PM’s office try to defend the indefensible.
But earlier this week, they waved the white flag, offering me everything I had originally asked for.
Proposed orders have now been sent by the PM’s lawyers to the Tribunal.
That’s not a ‘everyone walks away and we’ll process the diary’ agreement; it’s an acceptance that they were wrong.
The decision of the Tribunal does not mean the public gets unfettered access to the PM’s diary; the Prime Minister needs to decide if any exemptions exist (which could see the matter return to the Tribunal).
Delay – a fraud on the public
By the time the diary is publicly released, it will have been over a year since the FOI request was made, and one and half years from the first diary entry being sought. That could hardly be considered a timely outcome.
In a fast moving world, much of the diary will be more of historical interest now than of current value in terms of political accountability. The Prime Minister will have committed transparency and accountability fraud on the public in terms of their legal right to inspect his diary in a timely fashion. Delay is a cancer on accountability.
Was this the objective of the Prime Minister?
The PM and his office may have also wanted to deter other FOI applicants, especially the media. If the delays that have occurred for this request were applied again, a new request for diary information would be processed after the next Federal election. Journalists would ask themselves, why bother? The PM’s office would say, Perfect!
Cost fraud on the taxpayer
It will take a little time for all the legal invoices to roll in but there’ve been taxpayer funded lawyers engaged in two matters (Fairfax and mine) for several months.
It’s taxpayer’s money, improperly spent, and thrown away.
Thus far, not including the diary FOI, the Prime Minister’s Office has taken me to the AAT eight times and they’ve either lost or surrendered at the 11th hour. Senate questions on notice show that $420K has been spent on these failed transparency fights.
It’s clear that transparency is a lot cheaper than secrecy, a fact Albanese has not grasped.
There’s another important angle to all this. The RoboDebt scandal involved public officials implementing policies and a program they knew was not lawful. I don’t pretend to suggest that my FOI fight goes anywhere remotely near the magnitude of the RoboDebt scandal, but the underlying offence is the same – a disregard by public officials or political staff for the rule of law.
In the case of the PM’s diaries, the situation is inexcusable. The decision to refuse to process the diaries as per my FOI application (and Fairfax’s) was that of a qualified lawyer in the PM’s office, Ms Simona Gory, who appears on the evidence to have been happy to ignore the decision of the full Federal Court. She should have known better.
So too for the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Tim Gartrell. While he can’t interfere with an independent decision, after a decision has been made and an appeal lodged, he could have acted. He should have been alerted to it by the media flack the PM has received.
But ultimately, it’s Mr Albanese that must take responsibility for the rule of law black hole that was present in his office. It should have been of considerable concern to him. Prime Ministers can do a lot of things, but one of them isn’t operating outside the law.
Hopefully, by the time I’ve managed to look into his diary, the Prime Minister will have had the time to look into his own office’s misconduct and ethical failures, and remedied it.