Last month the Information Commissioner (IC) ruled that 13 letters to the Queen from Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott must be released to the public within 28 days.

The ruling was the result of a long dispute over a Freedom of Information request I submitted in 2016 asking for all letters sent by the Australian Prime Minister to Her Maj since January 1, 2013.

The 28-day deadline passed this week. And guess what: no letters.

Instead I’ve had word that the government is going to fight the IC ruling and take the case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), dragging out the case for another few months at least.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) refused my initial request by saying that it would damage international relations. They claimed that other foreign governments wouldn’t be comfortable communicating with Australia if the correspondence was not thought to be confidential.

I pointed out that the Queen is Australia’s head of state and any letters were therefore clearly sent to her in that capacity. It isn’t a case about international relations at all, it is a case about transparency and accountability at our highest levels of government.

The IC supported the thrust of my point, dismissing any arguments about international relations as irrelevant to this case.  

Like it or not (and I don’t), until Australia becomes a republic, the Queen is still at the top of our governmental tree whether she lives in London or Lismore. And until Australia becomes a republic, her role in government should be subject to the same level of scrutiny as any minister.

One of the letters involved, for example, is a note from Tony Abbott about his much-maligned plan to bring back knighthoods and dames in Australia, a policy that contributed to him being turfed off his own prime ministerial throne. If our Prime Minister is spending his or her time writing notes to the Queen about half-arsed ideas like that then it is only right they are held accountable for it.

DPMC also argued it is not in the “public interest” for any of the letters to be published. Ah, the classic public interest test! We’ve heard rather a lot about that recently, haven’t we?

If it is in the public interest to hear about the Deputy Prime Minister’s sex life then I’m sure as hell it is also in the public interest to know what suggestions the PM has been offering up to our head of state. The IC agreed with me on that point too — though not exactly in those words.

Now instead of handing over the letters as instructed, DPMC is gearing up its lawyers to make a case that the IC decision was wrong and the documents should never be released. If it loses the AAT case it still has a right to take it to the Federal Court. We could be gloving up for a long fight.

I’ve already had offers of pro bono legal support and I’ve set up a crowdfunding page to help with any costs.

The release of these 13 letters would set an important precedent that communication between the Australian government and the Australian head of state is not beyond scrutiny. It could also have implications for other cases such as Professor Jenny Hocking’s ongoing battle to reveal Buckingham Palace’s role in Gough Whitlam’s dismissal.

The role of politicians is to work in the best interests of the people they represent — so we should be able to know what issues they are raising with the Queen on our behalf.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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