Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has been ordered to hand his diary over to Crikey after a year-long battle to get transparency over the meetings the minister held in his first months in the job.

On Wednesday Information Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim ordered the minister’s office to hand over 15 pages of Fifield’s diary from the last three months of 2015, his first three months as Communications Minister in the Turnbull government.

In January last year, Crikey filed a freedom of information request for the Outlook calendar to learn whom the minister had met with. Fifield’s office refused the request, stating that the diary contained deliberative matter and was a work planning tool, rather than something designed to be made public.

Crikey appealed the decision to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. Fifield’s office attempted to suppress the release saying that his office was busy, and there were a limited number of staff to process the request, but Pilgrim said that at just 15 pages, it would not be a complex task.

The office also tried to suppress it by arguing that the dates of when cabinet or executive council meetings were held — even if there was no information in the notes about what was in the meetings — could allow someone to figure out the discussion of the cabinet meeting. Pilgrim also rejected this suggestion.

Fifield’s office then tried to argue that disclosing where the minister was travelling to and when could put his public safety at risk, but entries about the minister’s travel and accommodation were excluded as part of the request, so this excuse too was rejected. Pilgrim noted however that the office “did not address why disclosure in this case could reasonably be expected to cause the minister to become a target of violence, nor did it provide any supporting evidence”.

Pilgrim also rejected Fifield’s claim that the diary could change at any time and was unreliable as to what he actually did on a particular day, stating that the “document is simply a record of the minister’s scheduled meetings and events”.

Shockingly, the office had argued that Fifield’s meetings with industry stakeholders being revealed to the public would “disclose information concerning the business or professional affairs of a person (or concerning the business, commercial or financial affairs of an organisation or undertaking). Such disclosure could reasonably be expected to affect the person adversely in respect of their business or professional affairs (or that organisation in respect of its business, commercial or financial affairs).” 

Pilgrim again rejected this, stating that it was speculative. 

“The minister’s office has not provided any reason for the expectation, beyond the mere assertion that affected third parties would object to the release of information relating to their meetings with the minister.”

Fifield’s office has 28 days to appeal or hand over the diary to Crikey. Last week the Prime Minister’s Office announced its intention to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal a similar OAIC decision made in The Australian‘s favour for just one day of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s diary from the day he became prime minister.

Attorney-General George Brandis has been ordered by the full Federal Court to process a similar request from shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus back in September last year for some of his 2014 diary. More than four months later, Brandis has yet to process Dreyfus’ request.

Former chief of staff to Tony Abbott Peta Credlin argued on Sky News earlier this week that ministers should not be required to publish their diaries to the public, stating it would just create two sets of diaries and indicated she believed politicians in the US to be much less transparent than our politicians. Former US president Barack Obama maintained a visitor log book naming who visited him and when (with some exceptions) on the White House website.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey