When former senator and Transparency Warrior Rex Patrick made what he thought would be a routine transparency request for access to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s appointments diary in weekly view, he wasn’t expecting any big hurdles. After all, the new Labor Government had made much of its intention to lift the veils of secrecy that had shrouded the previous administration of Scott Morrison. But as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
When the Opposition Senate Leader, Simon Birmingham stood up in the Senate at Question Time on December 1 and asked the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Penny Wong, whether or not Prime Minister Anthony Albanese would release his appointments diary under Freedom of Information laws, my ears pricked up.
I paid attention partly because I was listening to a member of Scott Morrison’s past cabinet calling for transparency, something that’s not without a measure of irony; but mostly because the issue of the public release of Ministerial diaries in Australia is settled in law.
In the public interest
Ministerial diaries should be released, albeit it is expected that on rare occasions some redactions might be necessary. Not only is the making of ministerial diaries public ‘of interest to the public’, more importantly it’s ‘in the public interest’.
Ministers work for you. Everything they do, they do for public purpose. It’s appropriate that members of the public can look at ministers’ diary to see what they are (or aren’t) doing, who they are (or aren’t) meeting with, how much time they are spending on the job and how much time they spend at their office versus out in the field versus overseas.
And of course, transparency around ministerial diaries has important anti-corruption benefits too.
In a 2015 matter related to a request for disclosure of Attorney-General George Brandis’ diary, then Federal Court Justice and now High Court Justice Jayne Jagot said,
I consider that there is a significant public interest in knowing the outline of the daily activities of elected representatives, particularly a senior Minister in charge of such an important portfolio as the Attorney-General.
This principle has been embraced by the ACT Government which proactively releases all ministerial diaries. If you want to see what ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr and his Ministers have been doing, its all freely available on the internet.
No harm in disclosure
It’s really hard to argue that the disclosure of information in a minister’s diary could cause harm, and certainly not any level of harm that would in any way compete with the public interest associated with disclosure.
Provided the request is for past diary pages, it’s very difficult for any security concerns to arise from disclosure. Many repeated meetings (e.g. Cabinet Meeting) and movements (e.g. arriving at Parliament House) will be general in nature and a common expectation.
A post facto diary entry saying “Meeting with ASIO” or “Meeting with Chief of Defence Force” would have to be considered normal and reveals nothing that could cause damage to security or defence of Australia. A Prime Minister for instance would be expected to have meetings with security forces.
The naming of business executives, a union official, or an individual who attended a meeting with a minister cannot reasonably be expected to prejudice an organisation or an individual, nor disclose commercially sensitive or private information. Of course, it is conceded, a diary entry may give rise to further questions, but that’s just accountability at work in a democracy.
A diary entry saying “Cabinet meeting” cannot in any way be considered sensitive, just as an entry saying “meeting with Water Minister” couldn’t either.
Of course, private time, or even political party time, can be redacted as irrelevant because those particular entries do not relate to a Minister’s public duties.
So, it begs the question, why is the Prime Minister’s office trying to stand in the way of transparency?
Because it’s very clear they’re trying to put every obstacle they can in the way of releasing the PM’s diary, even when the legal precedent for disclosure is beyond doubt.
In my case they’ve told me my request will cost an outrageous $1,344 to process 179 days displayed in weekly view – that is to process 29 pages of diary. I say that’s ‘outrageous’ having personally made more than 300 FOIs request over the past 5 years and never been charged that sort of money, even for far more voluminous requests.
Perhaps they’re trying a different tactic to that applied to AFR journalist Ronald Mizen when he made a request for Albanese’s diary after he’d reached his 100 days in office milestone (15 pages of diary). Mizen wasn’t hit with an unreasonable cost; perhaps they thought AFR’s owner Nine Entertainment could afford it. For Mizen, they just said it was all just ‘too hard’.
Mizen has sought an Information Commissioner review. He’ll win that, though the Information Commissioner’s Office moves at a glacial pace so he will likely be waiting for some time (something the Prime Minister’s Office knows well).
Not too hard for Dreyfus or Chalmers
Attorney General Mark Dreyfus and Treasurer Jim Chalmers have released their diaries publicly without using a ‘too hard’ excuse. Oddly, as I requested access to the PM’s diary I also requested the diaries of Minister Bowen and Plibersek, and have not been asked to pay charges for them.
The approach taken by the Prime Minister’s office is just dumb. It’s dumb like not disclosing National Cabinet minutes dumb.
After months or years of appeals and hundreds of thousands dollar of taxpayer funds going to the Australian Government Solicitor, those requesting ministerial diaries will get them. The PM just needs to ask the first law officer, Attorney General Mark Dreyfus. He was the person who argued the seminal George Brandis diary access case before Justice Jagot in 2015.
The Prime Minister might try to discourage journalists and other interested citizens through legal delays and unreasonable costs. But they’re not thinking things through. The Prime Minister just ends up pinning a ‘secrecy addict’ label to his own back for no political or policy advantage.
The spinning secrecy wheel
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
It was a truism when this phrase was coined by French critic and journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr – 173 years later it’s equally, if not even more true for today’s politics.
Governments become oppositions and oppositions become governments, but no-one really seems to learn.
Prime Minister Albanese is trying to present the idea that he’s doing politics differently. But he needs to heed caution. Many of us are willing to give him a fair go, but we won’t be held back calling out hypocrisy.
Transparency builds confidence in our political leaders. Attempting to bury or stall an FOI diary request just does the opposite. It promotes the idea that the Prime Minster is disingenuous in his claims that his Government is transparent, and it erodes people trust in him”.
And when the mud starts flying about, some of it inevitably sticks.