Attorney-General George Brandis is so desperate to prevent even the remotest possibility of his diary being made public that he is spending tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money to fight an order that his office process a freedom of information request in the full Federal Court. Is national security really the reason, or is he trying to avoid being caught out slacking off?
After losing a case in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in December last year, Brandis is now taking his case to the full Federal Court in what is reportedly an attempt by his office to get “clarification” around how freedom of information law operates.
The long-running battle between shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus and Brandis over the diary stems back to the first budgetary announcements made in late 2013, early 2014, when millions of dollars were cut from arts and legal services. Dreyfus filed the request for Brandis’ diary entries in a weekly agenda format for the period after he was appointed Attorney-General in the then-Abbott government until May 12, 2014.
The case is not over whether Brandis would have to hand over a long list of who he has been meeting with for his first eight months in office, but rather whether his office even needs to process the request in the first place. The original rejection was based under Section 24 of the FOI Act, which allows refusal on practical grounds for a number of reasons, including the time it would take to process the request, or that it would interfere with the minister’s ability to perform his or her job. The AAT rejected this reasoning in December last year and ordered Brandis’ office to process the request.
Dreyfus told the ABC this morning that he had heard repeatedly from legal assistance services whose funding had been cut that Brandis had never met with them or consulted with them before cutting their budgets:
“They couldn’t even get a meeting with him … I actually think he didn’t consult at all, and I’m wanting to see just how he did spend his first eight months.”
In his first few months in office, Brandis cut over $15 million in funding from the Legal Aid Commissions, Community Legal Centres and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service. After eventually consulting with the sector, the government restored about $25 million in March 2015, despite the Productivity Commission recommending $200 million in funding for legal services.
Brandis has form in being selective with his meetings over significant policy issues. Although consumer groups and internet service providers were keen to meet with the Attorney-General before new legislation allowing piracy sites to be blocked and a new three-strikes scheme were announced, documents released following a freedom of information request revealed Brandis had only ever met with film studio organisations, music rights groups and Foxtel.
It is uncertain why the Attorney-General’s office was willing to comply with that request but is seeking to prevent even assessing Dreyfus’ broader request. In the AAT case, Brandis’ chief of staff, Paul O’Sullivan, made the case that there were 2400 entries, and it would require a significant amount of consultation with those involved. He has also attempted to justify holding off examining the diary on grounds that some of the entries related to national security. Dreyfus said that some of those entries could be “clean my teeth” and only 270 people would need to be consulted as part of the request.
Dreyfus has argued it would establish an “appalling” precedent to seek to prevent the public from knowing how cabinet ministers spend their time, and argued that diary entries for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and former prime minister Julia Gillard have been made available in the past:
“This is a basic proposition about accountability and transparency in government. Australians are entitled to see what cabinet ministers are doing to fill their days.”
The government will need to pay more for lawyers to argue the case before the full Federal Court. Dreyfus represented himself in the AAT hearing but would not say whether he would hire lawyers for the appeal. He did not seek costs from the government for the AAT hearing.
Brandis’ apparent disdain for transparency and accountability in government comes despite the new tone under Malcolm Turnbull for a more open government. Brandis’ department is still proceeding with plans to shut down the Office of the Information Commissioner, which has been the agency responsible for ensuring the government is meeting its freedom of information obligations. Legislation to shut down the office has yet to pass the Senate.