The release, after three years, of Attorney-General George Brandis’ diary might be the biggest anti-climax in Australian political history.
The normal processing time for a freedom of information request is 30 days; the Brandis diary saga took well over a thousand days and cost tens of thousands of dollars in court time and taxpayer-funded lawyers to fight the case in the AAT and two levels of court. Six months since the last court decision, and just as Labor was preparing to take the nation’s highest law officer back to court for contempt of court proceedings, Brandis quietly handed over his diary to shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus over the weekend. Dreyfus’ office released it to some media outlets on Sunday night.
The 34 pages of Outlook diary entries spanning from the time of the 2013 election to the week before the deeply unpopular 2014 budget are heavily redacted for irrelevant data, personal data such as mobile numbers, and for public safety reasons. Brandis’ chief of staff, James Lambie, cushioned the release of the document and the subsequent response from Labor that it proved Brandis had failed to meet with community legal centres before gutting their funding in the budget by stating that the diary was not a complete document. Spontaneous meetings, meetings organised by Brandis himself and telephone meetings were not recorded, according to Lambie.
The resulting document is 34 pages of generally what you would expect the AG to do in his first three months in government. In addition to the regular sitting week schedule — estimates hearings, question time, cabinet meetings (with sandwiches) — there are regular warrant signings, meetings with his department and his counterparts in the states, and his full schedule of his first trip to the United States, including meetings with FBI director James Comey and then-head of the CIA John Brennan.
As arts minister, Brandis also regularly attended arts-related events, including seeing a performance of Hamlet, attending the ARIA Awards, and dinners at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Coincidentally, the release of Brandis’ diary comes as the new Arts Minister Mitch Fifield, gutted Brandis’ “vanity project”, the Catalyst arts funding program, of $80.2 million and returned the funding to the Australia Council.
There had been speculation that Brandis might seek to avoid releasing his diary until his expected departure from the ministry and Parliament later this year. Last week, Brandis said on Sky that persistent rumours of him going to London were “old gossip” . In the same interview, Brandis tried to claim he had no oversight over the FOI process for his diary, but his chief of staff was the officer charged with processing the request. The full (redacted) diary can be read here.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Fifield have taken The Australian and Crikey, respectively, to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal seeking to avoid handing over their diaries.