Attorney-General George Brandis’ office had refused Labor’s requests to access details of appointments in the lead-up to key government decisions. Photo: Daniel Munoz Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus outside the Administrative Appeals Tribunal earlier in the year. Photo: Nick Moir
Attorney-General George Brandis is challenging a tribunal’s ruling that his office reconsider a request from shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus for access to his ministerial diary.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal last year ruled that the way Senator Brandis had refused to release his ministerial diary went against the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act to “facilitate and promote public access to information”, and if this was allowed, “the intentions of Parliament … would be thwarted”, Justice Jayne Jagot said.
A spokeswoman for Senator Brandis confirmed on Wednesday that he had instructed the Australian Government Solicitor to appeal the decision in the Federal Court, saying the tribunal’s findings had “wide-ranging implications for the FOI system.”
“Accordingly, it is in the public interest that there be judicial clarification of how the FOI system operates,” she said.
Senator Brandis’ lawyers will argue that Justice Jagot “erred” by not deciding that FOI decision makers needed to consult all third parties named in diary entries, where “there was some prospect that such an entry might be exempt [from disclosure],” court documents say.
Justice Jagot had dismissed Senator Brandis’ argument that processing the FOI request for eight months’ entries would unreasonably burden him and his staff. She dismissed his office’s argument that the task would take up to 526 hours, saying it would take far less time because staff did not need to consult with every person Senator Brandis was scheduled to meet before releasing the diary, given that it mainly consisted of “brief and anodyne” entries relating to his appointments and work arrangements. There was also a significant public interest in knowing an outline of elected representatives’ daily activities, she said.
Mr Dreyfus said he initially made the FOI request to determine which stakeholders Senator Brandis had met with before he decided to cut funding for community legal services and the arts.
The Attorney-General would spend tens of thousands of dollars to appeal the tribunal’s decision to the Full Federal Court in order to avoid a “simple FOI request,” he said. “This is an extraordinary waste of public money, even by Senator Brandis’ opulent standards.”
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has previously refused FOI requests for three months of former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s ministerial diary, and one month of former prime minister Julia Gillard’s diary, ruling it would be a “substantial task” to process them.
Senator Brandis has said the government would continue funding the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner until it could pass its law to abolish it.
The government introduced the bill in 2014, which is not expected to gain enough support to pass the Senate. It aims to make the Attorney-General responsible for FOI guidelines and statistics, and give the Administrative Appeals Tribunal the sole power to conduct review decisions on requests.
With Paul Bibby
Follow us on Twitter