Brandis' office is far from ready for Turnbull's Nimbledon

Did Attorney-General George Brandis' office really think it would take hundreds of hours to prepare his diary for release? That's not very nimble.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wants Australia to have an agile, nimble, 21st century government, but he's got his work cut out. Look, for example, to the office of Australia's favourite Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis QC, and the saga of his ministerial diary.

As will become clear, it seems that the Attorney-General's office is far from nimble...

Last year, Labor's Mark Dreyfus QC MP, a former attorney-general himself, got the impression that Brandis wasn't doing things right. Major policy decisions were being made without consultation, he told Fairfax Media. Stakeholders in the legal and arts communities -- Brandis was also arts minister at the time -- had told him they just couldn't get appointments to see the minister.

Dreyfus put in a Freedom of Information (FoI) request for nine months of Brandis' diary entries, but it was refused. Why? Too much work, said Brandis' office.

Or, to put it formally, a practical refusal reason existed under section 24AA of the Freedom of Information Act 1982, in that the work would would "substantially and unreasonably interfere" with the performance of the minister's office.

Brandis' office had claimed that it would take hundreds of hours to consult with people who'd met with the minister, and to redact diary entries which might contain "matters of national security concern, cabinet deliberations and other issues of sensitivity".

They also claimed that it was "unreasonable" to reveal Brandis' travel patterns, because that "may increase the security threats relating to his personal safety".

So, no diary.

Dreyfus challenged this decision in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). On Tuesday this week, the head of the AAT, Justice Jayne Jagot, handed down her decision.

Dreyfus won. Brandis' office has been ordered to reconsider the FoI requests.

Now we get to the lack-of-nimble. Whether you read Jagot J's decision in full, or just Fairfax Media's summary, you'll soon get a feel for how Brandis' office would have dealt with the 1930-odd diary entries in his Microsoft Outlook calendar for the nine-month period.

Jagot J compiled the evidence given by Brandis' chief of staff, Paul O'Sullivan, into a chart that put the estimated time to process the diary at somewhere between 228 and 630 hours.

(Screenshot: Stilgherrian/ZDNet)

Elsewhere in evidence, O'Sullivan put the figure at between 301 and 307 hours. That's the equivalent of four people working full time for a fortnight -- a ludicrous amount of time when you consider that most diary entries are, as Jagot J put it, "brief, one line, entries" with little detail.

Personally, I'm wondering why there needs to be any redaction at all. Brandis' diary just records who he spoke to, and how long they spoke for, not the content of their conversation. So it's just the metadata of his meetings, right?

But I digress...

It's the chief of staff's job to ensure the smooth running of the minister's office. Is this bloated workflow really the best he could come up with? Or was the time estimate deliberately inflated to support the section 24AA claim, counter to the spirit of FoI? Either scenario is worrying.

But it gets worse. O'Sullivan told the AAT "there's a complex process to have redactions, because there's only one operator who's properly trained and only one computer has the Adobe Acrobat program".

Now I accept that the redaction of PDF files needs to be done the right way, to make sure the redacted material still isn't visible in the raw code. But wouldn't it be, shall we say, prudent to have a backup plan if the one trained "operator" isn't available?

And why are PDF files involved anyway? The data exists as an Outlook calendar. It can be exported to a spreadsheet, the data redaction done in that spreadsheet -- replacing the words "Super Secret Meeting with Lizard People" with "[REDACTED]" -- and the edited spreadsheet emailed to Dreyfus.

It sounds like the attorney-general's office was planning to print out the calendar, work on paper, and scan the pages back into a PDF. Indeed, that's still how digital documents are often redacted, even today.

Putting the specific knowledge of the FoI Act to one side, it sounds like the attorney-general's office isn't able to process simple digital files in ways that every ordinary office worker has been expected to do for a decade or more.

I'm guessing the public service itself has these skills, just not ministerial offices. Or perhaps just not the attorney-general's office.

The attorney-general's office wasn't the only source of digital dismay this week. The government's official @myGovau Twitter account issues some unsafe security advice.

(Screenshot: Stilgherrian/ZDNet)

"Going out of mobile range? Turn off myGov Security Codes so you can still sign in! Go to 'settings' in your account," they tweeted on Tuesday.

That is, they suggested that people turn off two-factor authentication on the MyGov account, which is used for everything from welfare payments to tax and Medicare, at a time when they're more likely to use higher-risk internet connections, such as open wi-fi or internet cafes.

People may well swap to a foreign SIM while travelling, which means the 2FA codes won't reach them. But shouldn't we be telling people to change the number the codes are sent to, only a slight inconvenience, rather than downgrading their security?

All in all, it sounds like we're not quite ready to board Turnbull's agile rocket to Nimbledon. We're still putting the wheels on the penny-farthing.

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