Defence ordered to hand over navy chief’s diary to senator investigating arms contract | Australia news
Defence wrongly kept the Australian navy chief’s diary secret from a senator who was investigating the handling of a multibillion-dollar arms contract.
The handling of a $4bn contract to build Australia’s new fleet of patrol boats met with criticism last year, after local shipbuilder Austal said its significantly cheaper proposal was shunned by the government in favour of a German firm, Luerssen.
The government later attempted to involve Austal in the work, but negotiations broke down.
In an attempt to uncover who top defence figures had met in the lead-up to the controversy, the Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick requested the diaries of the navy chief and the head of defence’s capability acquisition and sustainment group for November 2017, under freedom of information laws.
But the defence department hid behind cabinet confidentiality grounds to block Patrick’s request. Documents that reveal the decisions or deliberations of cabinet are fully exempt from FOI. Defence argued the diaries would reveal the dates of cabinet meetings, and so were exempt.
But Patrick appealed the case to the information watchdog, arguing the dates of cabinet meetings in no way revealed decisions or discussions. He told Guardian Australia the defence department’s behaviour was an example of “secrecy creep”.
“I support the need for cabinet confidence … but this is secrecy creep,” Patrick said. “If you give an inch, they’ll take a mile.”
The senator told the information commissioner the department’s claims were “as erroneous as claims that revealing the location of cabinet meetings … or the catering requirements of a cabinet meeting … somehow breach ‘cabinet confidentiality’”.
The information commissioner, Angelene Falk, agreed.
“The information merely records the appointments that have been scheduled for a particular day and do not contain any further information as to what was considered or discussed in those meetings,” Falk found. “Accordingly, I am not persuaded that disclosure of the information contained in the documents would reveal a cabinet deliberation or decision.”
Defence confirmed it would comply with the judgment and release the diaries to Patrick.
Experts are concerned at the high rates of FOI refusals across the federal government. In January, Guardian Australia revealed that refusal rates were at their highest level since records began in 2010-11. Complaints about the handling of FOI had risen by 72%, and the growth in the number of appeals to the information commissioner had pushed out waiting times for reviews.
Data also shows the use of “practical refusal” grounds to block FOI requests is at record levels. Departments rely on practical grounds if they believe an FOI would take too much work or divert too many resources.
Transparency International Australia believes that is partly due to the lack of staffing in FOI teams across departments.