george brandis

Attorney-General George Brandis has lost his bid to avoid considering releasing his 2013-14 diary to shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus.

In January Brandis decided to spend taxpayers’ money appealing a decision by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to process a mid-2014 freedom of information request from Dreyfus for Brandis’ diaries. 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 in late 2013 until May 12, 2014.

Dreyfus filed the FOI request in response to claims around the time of the May 2014 budget that legal services groups had found it difficult to get a meeting with the Attorney-General to discuss cuts to legal aid.

Brandis’ office argued that it shouldn’t have to consider the request because there were 2400 entries that would likely require Brandis himself to determine whether they would be exempt from release on a variety of grounds, including national security. Dreyfus argued that many of the entries would be irrelevant to his ministerial activities and initial investigations revealed a maximum of 270 people would potentially need to be consulted as part of the request.

Brandis’ office ruled against processing the FOI request. Dreyfus appealed the decision to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and won, and Brandis took the case to the full Federal Court in August. The full Federal Court dismissed Brandis’ appeal this morning and ordered the government to pay Dreyfus’ costs.

In the decision, the court found that there was no need to consult every person mentioned in every diary entry. The entry merely showed the date, time and appointment details, like the person’s name, or a brief description of the nature of the meeting. The court agreed with the AAT that there was no rational basis for someone who had met with the Attorney-General to keep their name from being released.

It is not the end of the matter, however. Brandis’ office can now begin processing the request and might potentially refuse to release parts of the document on a variety of grounds, including national security, or Brandis can appeal the matter to the High Court. In an ABC interview this morning, the Attorney-General would not rule out taking the matter all the way to the High Court, stating he would need to see the judgment of the full court first.

Dreyfus said Brandis, as the minister responsible for freedom of information law, should comply with that law, and said he himself would comply with FOI requests for his diary were he to become the attorney-general.

The cost to the taxpayer for Brandis to avoid scrutiny over his diary is not yet known, but some estimates put the costs for lawyers and filing fees at more than $40,000. Labor is likely to raise the issue of costs with the Attorney-General’s Department at estimates hearings in October.

Peter Fray

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