Senator Jacqui Lambie and independent MP Zali Steggall have thrown their support behind an “oversubscribed” freedom of information effort led by former senator Rex Patrick to get hold of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s diary after a decision to release the documents was reversed.
On Wednesday the prime minister’s office made a U-turn on a decision to hand over the first 197 days of Albanese’s diary, saying that the effort required to disclose the documents would “substantially and unreasonably” interfere with the “performance” of the office.
Patrick first submitted his FOI request on December 5, seeking Albanese’s diary dating back to May 23, his first day of business. Albanese’s office eventually batted away the request late on Wednesday after taking a deposit on the $1344 fee it would cost to process the request just two days earlier.
“This is due to the complexity and volume of information contained within the documents responsive to your request, and that the diary used by the prime minister contains multiple types of entries, not all of which are subject to the act,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in its response, adding this constituted a “practical refusal reason” under the relevant legislation.
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As a result, Patrick took to crowd-sourcing a 29-part freedom of information request which will seek to get a hold of the prime minister’s diary in fortnightly increments, which Patrick told Crikey is now “well oversubscribed”.
Among the subscribers are Lambie and Steggall, who joined him as a matter of “transparency and accountability”, after Labor made transparency in government central to its policy platform leading up to the 2022 federal election.
“Now, the bizarre thing is it was [Attorney-General] Mark Dreyfus who led the fight on this back in 2015. It was his case against [then attorney-general] George Brandis, which was seminal, that went all the way to the Federal Court. He fought for access, he fought for a very similar request to me, which was a weekly format,” Patrick said.
The reasons given to Patrick by the PMO for turning down the request were identical to those given by Brandis’ office when Dreyfus was trying to get access to roughly 200 days of his diary.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal eventually found there were no practical reasons for withholding the documents, and Dreyfus has disclosed his diary since coming into office, alongside Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke, after facing FOI requests from The Australian Financial Review.
Leader of the opposition in the Senate Simon Birmingham told Crikey that Albanese’s decision to withhold his diary, even as his senior colleagues disclosed theirs, was “embarrassing” given that “Labor loudly beat its drum on transparency before the election”.
Lambie, meanwhile, said she will assess her options to force Albanese into a disclosure through the Senate. Birmingham wouldn’t confirm whether she had his support, and Steggall suggested that Albanese should release his diary of his own accord.
Greens senator and justice spokesman David Shoebridge said that if the government did nott voluntarily release the contents of Albanese’s diary, using the power of the Senate to force its disclosure was the “logical next step”.
“Of course the diaries of all ministers should be made public. It’s basic transparency that I had come to expect at a state level where NSW ministers are required to publish as a result of a longstanding ICAC recommendation,” Shoebridge said.
And ministers in NSW aren’t alone. ACT ministers make ongoing diary disclosures on a quarterly basis, and the diaries of Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and her cabinet can be accessed at any point. Even US President Joe Biden keeps a running disclosure of White House visitors available to the public.
Patrick said the irony of Wednesday’s outcome was that by denying access to the PM’s diary on administrative grounds, the PMO has now signed up to a far greater volume of administrative burden.
The desired outcome, he said, would be for Albanese to just come out and disclose it: “We don’t want to see it come out by force.”