What’s a “red book” and a “blue book”? Why are they important?

Let’s clear up some issues around election briefings.

Each department prepares post-election briefings during the election campaign, to be handed to a new minister, or to the same minister, as soon as the election result is clear.

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There are in fact three “books”, and they don’t necessarily have colours. One is for a returned government, with the same minister. A second is for a returned government, but with a new portfolio minister. The third is for a new government. The briefing requirements are necessarily different for each.

Getting the same minister — and the same ministerial staff — back makes the briefing load much easier because the Minister and their office are across key issues and just need to get back in the saddle. A new minister might have the same policies, but he or she will need a comprehensive briefing on all portfolio issues to get up to speed, as does a new government minister.

You don’t prepare a “Government returned, same minister” brief if the relevant minister is retiring. So, the Department of Finance would have only prepared a briefing for a new government or a new minister this time around due to Lindsay Tanner retiring. Defence, too, knows it will get a new minister regardless of the outcome.

The aim is usually to have a final draft of what ends up being a several hundred page document ready a few days in advance of election day, leaving time for the Departmental Secretary or senior execs to cast a final eye over it.

The briefs contain several components. First, as we know from the current kerfuffle over the Coalition’s running and hiding on costings, is a section on election commitments. The brief will describe the commitment and its source, and then discuss how it can be implemented, over what time frame, what it will cost and what difficulties may arise.

Contrary to what you might read in the media, bureaucrats do not criticise election commitments in their briefing to incoming ministers. That would be utterly inappropriate from unelected officials. They may, however, explain problems that are likely to arise in the course of implementation. But bureaucrats understand that fulfilling election commitments is the biggest priority for any government.

That’s why the Coalition’s policy commitments have already been analysed by bureaucrats in relevant departments, and costed. They don’t need the Coalition’s permission to do that. In fact, they have to do it if they’re to provide quality advice to a new government from the moment it is elected.

But that’s only the first part of the briefing.

The second briefing component is usually about urgent decisions that need to be made ASAP. Courtesy of caretaker, decisions will have been piling up that a minister, whether old or new, needs to make quickly or there may be significant consequences for the Commonwealth. They may be policy decisions, or they may be contractual commitments into which the Commonwealth has not been able to enter because of the election.

A briefing for a new minister will have to explain the background to decisions, often giving long, complex histories of issues in as short a space as possible, before presenting options for ministerial consideration. The bureaucrats will be conscious that even the most committed minister will take a few weeks to get their feet under the desk.

A critical difference between same and new government briefings, however, is that advice to previous governments is never discussed with a government of a different party. What the bureaucracy told the Howard Government was off-limits to Labor ministers after November 2007. What the bureaucracy told the Rudd and Gillard Governments will be off-limits to an Abbott Government. Once the flavour of the new government is clear, the briefing prepared for the other party is locked away or even destroyed.

The briefing packages will usually also include more thematic briefings about key issues in the portfolio. That’s an opportunity for the bureaucracy to give Ministers and their staff an understanding of where it believes attention needs to be directed, to identify issues that may not have featured in the election campaign or political debate but which it believes need ministerial attention or which pose risks for the government or key stakeholders.

There may also be general portfolio background briefs, mainly meant for new advisers — who frequently have no background in their supposed new area of expertise — so that they can get across the industry or area they’ll be advising a minister on.

In all that, there are, generally, only two sensitive areas: previous advice given to different governments, and commercially-confidential information. The briefings are free of political spin, even in the selection of topics — beyond the election commitments, they reflect what senior bureaucrats believe are the key issues. Defence and intelligence briefings (and central agency briefings dealing with those portfolios) will necessarily include national security information as well.

But that’s why when Channel Seven’s Michael McKinnon submitted an FOI application for Treasury’s incoming government briefing for the Rudd Government, most of it was released. There is nothing innately confidential or secret about election briefing.

The only real sensitivity about providing the costings components of the briefings to the independents is that it should not enable one party to have access to advice provided to the alternate party. Otherwise, there is nothing sacrosanct about handing them election briefings, particularly if the independents want to get a good, objective understanding of what a party’s election platform will require to achieve.

*Bernard Keane was a Commonwealth public servant until 2008 and oversaw the preparation of the Department of Transport’s 1998 election brief.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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