What did we say about Cossie’s relations with the media after The Australian’s FOI defeat in the High Court yesterday?

Two hours after the learned justices assembled, the Treasurer held a presser. It was supposed to be on the national accounts, but it soon turned into an all-in on FOI. Here’s hoping you caught it on Sky. The transcript doesn’t do justice to Dollar Sweetie’s body language. Sometimes he was Captain Smirk. Other times he doubled up like Quasimodo.

Whatever. The media were stroppy and the Treasurer certainly wasn’t comfy – but at least he stayed on message. He said “A conclusive certificate can be issued where there are reasonable grounds that disclosure would be contrary to the public interest. The AAT found that there were reasonable grounds, the full Federal Court found that there were reasonable grounds and that decision was upheld by the High Court. That is what happened. The High Court said that the AAT got it right.”

Well, with all due respect to the Treasurer, this is how my own personal experience has taught me FOI really works.

FOI is a matter of deciding between “public interest” consideration A – conceal – and “public interest” consideration B.

The High Court went for option A – or three of the five judges, anyway.

That’s their opinion – yet you could also argue that since this sort of decision is hardly a point of law, that opinion isn’t much more valuable that yours or mine.

The fact is that even the most eminent members of the judiciary aren’t really any more qualified to determine what is the “public interest” than you or I or any other bod off the street. They’ve just been given the job of doing it – replete with highfalutin’ language.

A “conclusive certificate” is conclusive evidence of a cover-up. And it is the task of a free media, interested citizens and oppositions and minor parties in a democracy continually to pursue and publicise such cover ups as they are about the only real deterrent we have.

You don’t need to read the wraps of the case in the papers today to draw conclusions about the future usefulness of FOI.

Peter Fray

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