George Brandis

The Attorney-General’s Department’s disregard for freedom of information continues, with the agency failing to turn up to a teleconference hearing this morning on Crikey‘s ongoing attempt to obtain George Brandis’ metadata.

In May, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner closed a lengthy review it had been undertaking into a decision made by Brandis’ chief of staff, Paul O’Sullivan, not to hand over metadata held by Australia’s highest law officer. This came after we had requested access to the metadata on his phone, to see who had the ear of the Attorney-General. Midway through the OAIC’s review, Brandis’ office simply ceased responding to the OAIC’s requests to follow up, and a request for a teleconference was ignored.

In these circumstances, the OAIC made the logical decision that it was unlikely to get any further on this request and suggested that it would be best dealt with by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. An AAT review brings with it an $861 application fee for the person who originally lodged the FoI request (this fee is increasing from July 1 to $884).

At the time, I filed an application with the AAT to delay making a decision on whether to file a review (you get 30 days to decide whether to apply for an AAT review after the OAIC’s decision is made). I argued that in the middle of a tight election campaign, it is unclear whether Brandis will still be the attorney-general after July 2.

In previous cases where there has been a change of government, or a change of ministry, FoI officers have attempted to argue that they no longer hold the records of the previous ministers (this was done by Turnbull’s office for FoI requests related to Tony Abbott’s time as prime minister). It seems even less likely that the contents of a smartphone would still be around if Brandis is not the AG after the election.

[Tony? Never heard of him]

The AAT scheduled a teleconference for today, the week before the election, to decide whether a decision whether to review the decision could be made after the election. Despite the best attempts of the AAT officials to get the Attorney-General’s Department on the line for the teleconference, no official ultimately responded to the call, or even responded the request to appear for the teleconference.

The AAT has not yet made a decision on whether the application for the review can be held over until after the election.

When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made his commitment to open government in the budget and announced he would no longer proceed with plans to shut down the OAIC — funding it for $37 million over the next four years to continue responsibility for FoI reviews — the AAT remained a vital, albeit expensive, component of the government’s transparency operation as the last resort for FoI reviews.

A glance at this case, along with the several listed on the AAT’s decision page on Austlii, shows just how hard extracting information out of the government can be. Even MPs struggle to find information; Labor MP Andrew Leigh has been trying to get the AFP to reveal Liberal staffers interviewed about the leak of Andrew Wilkie’s Office of National Assessments report on the Iraq war since mid-last year. The AAT only released the information in April of this year.

At the time of writing, I am awaiting the return of a seven month old request to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection regarding boat turnbacks. This week the department informed me that documents would likely be released the week after the election.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey