Subjects: Attorney-General George Brandis’s refusal to release segments of his diary under the FOI Act
THE HON MARK DREYFUS QC MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR NATIONAL SECURITY
MEMBER FOR ISAACS
FRIDAY 12 AUGUST 2016
SUBJECT/S: Attorney-General George Brandis’s refusal to release segments of his diary under the FOI Act
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: This request today dealt with by the Full Federal Court of Australia for eight months of the Attorney-General’s diary might seem like a relatively small matter. It’s in fact a relatively small document, as we learned before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. But it’s actually a case which raises some very significant issues that go right to the heart of the integrity of the way in which this government is administering the Freedom of Information system. The Attorney-General is responsible for the administration of the Freedom of Information Act. And it’s apparent that this Attorney-General, George Brandis, is intent on trashing the objects of the Freedom of Information Act in doing the reverse of what the Freedom of Information Act should be about, which is providing transparency in government activity, in providing information to Australian citizens so that they can hold the government to account. That’s why the Freedom of Information Act exists, but instead of as one would think, the Minister for the Freedom of Information Act upholding the Freedom of Information Act giving proper direction and setting an example for the rest of the government, what we have here from Senator Brandis is a refusal to even process the request for eight months of his diary of when he was in office. By refusing to even process, and then resisting the appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which he lost because Justice Jagot sitting on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal resoundingly rejected the ridiculously inflated estimate that was given by the Attorney-General of - would you believe it - 630 hours required by him and his office to even process the request. Justice Jagot on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal rejected that. Not content with that rejection, not content to do what he was told to do by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal which was to go back and process the request, Senator Brandis has achieved further delay, several months delay by bringing this matter now before three judges of the full federal court, and we will now await the result of that decision. I am very much hoping that if, as I hope, the full Federal Court rejects Senator Brandis’s appeal, he will not waste further tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayers money on taking this matter to the High Court of Australia. He should not have resisted in the first place, he should not have appealed to the Full Federal Court, and if he loses here, as I hope he will, he should certainly not be taking this matter to the High Court of Australia.
JOURNALIST: Mr Dreyfus, has Labor looked at other ministerial diaries, do you have the intention to look at other ministerial diaries?
DREYFUS: This is something which comes up from time to time, to give credit where it’s due, it’s not every minister of this government which is resistant to Freedom of Information. Senator Brandis’s colleague, Julie Bishop, has released a month of her diary, which is available publicly, showing how simple this sort of request should be. As a matter of principle, ministers’ diaries, Prime Ministers’ diaries, should be available if that’s what citizens wish to see. Here in NSW, the Premier has not only made his appointments’ diary available for the public to look at, he has required all of his ministers to do so. President Obama makes his appointments’ diary public. It’s a useful thing for citizens to be able to see what ministers are spending their time on.
JOURNALIST: Is there something that you think the Attorney is trying to hide in not wanting to release his diary?
DREYFUS: Well one would have to think that the Attorney-General must be wanting to try to hide something, because he has spent so much effort and so many tens of thousands of dollars of Commonwealth taxpayers’ money on resisting this, after refusing to even process the request. What prompted me to ask in the first place is repeated complaints that I received in the first six months that this government was in office, from September 2013 through to March 2014 that people couldn’t get in to see Senator Brandis because they were told he was too busy. It was particularly people in the legal assistance sector, people in Community Legal Centres, and particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Legal Services, whose funding was cut very savagely in December 2013. None of them was seen by Senator Brandis before he cut their funding, and he wouldn’t see them afterwards either. I thought to see his diary just to confirm what it was that he was so busy with that he couldn’t see the people in the legal assistance sector whose funding he was cutting.
JOURNALIST: So have your concerns then grown about what is in that diary [inaudible]?
DREYFUS: Well you’d have to think that he’s trying to keep something secret because he is spending so much money and so much effort to try not to release it. And where we’re at - we’re at stage one with the minister responsible for the FOI Act refusing to even process a pretty simple FOI request.
JOURNALIST: Mr Dreyfus, since you are representing yourself, who is paying for your barristers and how will that affect the costs if you are successful in this case?
DREYFUS: Well I of course will not be seeking any costs for myself because I am appearing for myself, and if we are successful in this case, very helpfully, Maurice Blackburn solicitors have agreed to work on the basis of no-win no-fee basis, and the barristers as well, who are assisting me in this case. If we are successful in receiving a cost order, I will be making appropriate representations [inaudible].
JOURNALIST: There were a couple of examples that Mr Pizer raised that there might be sensitivities surrounding the Attorney meeting perhaps religious leaders or indeed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, that there would be sensitivities around those names, it could lead to them being ostracized by their community?
DREYFUS: Well of course that’s what exemptions in the FOI Act are directed at, and there will be matters in the diary….in the fight for this to be released under FOI, we fully understand that there would be entries in the diary which would be deleted as exempt for a range of reasons. Chief among them national security measures because obviously the Attorney-General as National Security Minister - I was the Attorney-General so I’ve got as good an understanding as anyone - that there will be matters in the diary that will be exempt as national security matters for the examples that you’ve given. But what we’ve got is an Attorney-General refusing even to process the request. We haven’t even got to that issue of what happens if those issues arise. I don’t know that they do arise, but obviously the examples that were given in court are matters that the exemptions in the FOI Act are there to deal with.
JOURNALIST: How long do you think reasonably it should take to process this request?
DREYFUS: Certainly, not 630 hours which is a laughable estimate and one which was rejected resoundingly by Justice Jagot in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. I would have thought it is something that could be dealt with in a couple of dozen hours but I don’t have this document, I don’t know the precise figure. It’s not a matter of any absolute figure. What the FOI Act says is that the only reason that a request can refuse to be processed at all is if it is a substantial and unreasonable interference with the performance of in this case the Attorney-General’s functions. It is nonsense to suggest a senior Cabinet Minister, who has a 17-person staff and 1300 people in his Department cannot process at all a request for eight months of his diary in an Outlook weekly format.
JOURNALIST: Do you commit in the event that you become Attorney-General again, the Parliament is fairly finely balanced [inaudible] that you will make your appointments diary available as a matter of course?
DREYFUS: I’m committed as an Attorney-General should be, if I am able to become Attorney-General again, to administering the FOI Act in accordance with its objectives, and administering the FOI system in Australia in a way that promotes transparency and accountability in Government, which puts the maximum amount of government information before the Australian public. So if I get a request as Attorney-General for my appointments diary, I will certainly not be doing what Senator Brandis has done which is to refuse to even process it. No doubt there will be entries in my diary that might raise some national security considerations, and those are matters that would be appropriately deleted. But I can give an absolute guarantee that I will be acting in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act and fulfilling its objectives.
JOURNALIST: You did raise a couple of examples though of the Premier here, the President of the United States, do make their diaries available as a matter of course. Why not go the extra step?
DREYFUS: I think that is something we should look at across government if it is possible for President Obama to do it, the leader of the world’s greatest superpower to publish his appointments diary, on the simple basis that it is appropriate for the citizens of the US, or the world, to see how the President of the United States is spending his days, then I think it’s something we can pretty seriously look at, if it’s appropriate for the citizens of Australia to know how senior ministers are spending their days.