Department of Communications blocks release of minister briefs

The Australian Department of Communications has blocked the release of briefing documents provided to incoming Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, sparking suggestions that the minister is indulging in the secretive behaviour he was so critical of before the election.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

The Department of Communications has refused to release the so-called Blue Book briefing document provided to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull after the election under Freedom of Information, arguing the document is exempt from the law.

At the calling of the election, every department prepares two briefs, either a Red Book, or a Blue Book for the either Labor or Coalition incoming minister after the election. The documents provide advice to the government on issues facing the department and portfolio, and action that is required on executing promises made during the election period. Following the Coalition's election win in September, the Blue Book for the Department of Communications was provided to Turnbull, and was, at the same time, the subject of a Freedom of Information request seeking the release of the full document.

Historically, the government has often released the documents under FOI, usually censored to some degree, but the new incoming government has blocked the release of a number of blue books from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury, and the Attorney-General's Department.

Although the Department of Communications, as recently as just before the election, released part of the incoming brief for then-Communications Minister Anthony Albanese, the Department of Communications' assistant secretary in the governance division, Andrew Madsen, ruled on November 11 that the document created for Turnbull would be considered completely exempt from Freedom of Information.

In his statement of reasons (PDF), Madsen said that there was "very little purely factual information" included in the briefings that would have otherwise obligated the department to release the document, stating that there is a lot of "deliberative material" to help guide the incoming minister on the job he faces in the portfolio. He noted that the department is required to offer "frank and comprehensive advice" to the incoming minister, and the release of such advice to the public would have a "substantial and adverse effect on the proper and efficient conduct of the operations of the department."

If the document was released to the public, it could lead to public servants tailoring incoming briefings into "a more generic bland document" which would avoid raising difficult questions for an incoming minister around the implementation of their party's policy.

Ultimately, although there was strong public interest in the access to the documents, Madsen said that it was outweighed by the interest factors against releasing the Blue Book.

The decision to block the release of incoming briefs comes in stark contrast to the comments Turnbull made about the government's approach to the release of information, often accusing the government and NBN Co of being highly secretive. Turnbull's turnaround on secrecy was criticised by Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare.

"This is not the government that they promised to be. In Opposition Malcolm Turnbull said NBN Co was more secretive than the Kremlin and the Church of Scientology," Clare said.

"Now he is in government he is refusing to release the brief he was given when he became a Minister. Previous Ministers have done this and so should he."

Turnbull argued in Parliament today that the Coalition had already been much more transparent than the previous government on the issue of the National Broadband Network. NBN Co yesterday published the third in its series of weekly updates on the progress of the NBN rollout, announcing that in the last week, the NBN passed another 6004 premises, for a total of 360,797 covered by the fibre and wireless networks, with 2,554 new premises using the network for a total of 112,416 users on the NBN.

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