Grattan on Friday: It can be a battle to get information from the Albanese government

Thank goodness for Senate committees. This week, they’ve proved, yet again, to be worth their weight in accountability gold.

On Monday, at an inquiry into the cost of living, senators from both sides gave Qantas boss Alan Joyce a salutary roughing-up, over everything from yet-to-be-returned flight credits to the government’s blocking of extra Qatar Airways flights and Joyce’s contacts with Anthony Albanese. (Subsequently, Qantas has announced it is removing the expiry date on the COVID travel credits.)

On Tuesday, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, which is probing the operation of the federal Freedom of Information laws, heard disturbing evidence from former FOI commissioner Leo Hardiman, who months ago resigned only a year into his five-year term.

Hardiman detailed a litany of obstacles in resourcing and culture in the administration of FOI, which he could not overcome.

The regular Senate estimates hearings, which grill bureaucrats, are welcomed and feared, depending where people sit in the political process.

It was Senate inquiries, it might be remembered, that did the deep diving into the PwC scandal and the entrails of other consultancy firms that receive huge amounts of taxpayer money. Labor backbencher Deb O'Neill and the Greens’ Barbara Pocock were forensic in their questioning.

Like most governments, this one arrived in office promising more accountability and transparency. Also like others, in practice it has a penchant for control and secrecy.

It did set up the National Anti-Corruption Commission, and for that it has been rightly praised.

Even there, however, there’s arguably too much secrecy – and that’s leaving aside the minimalist approach to public hearings specified in the NACC legislation.

Surely it will be a problem if we are not told what inquiries the NACC is pursuing.

Serious allegations demand investigation, but if it’s not known whether the NACC has taken the matter up (or passed it to another agency), what can a government do? It can hardly set up another inquiry, given this information vacuum.

Once the NACC has decided on an investigation, there’s a solid case for it to say so – which it has the discretion to do.

Whatever one thinks of secrecy around the NACC, there are plenty of other areas where it is clearly excessive.

Rex Patrick is a former senator who started with the Nick Xenophon Team and later became an independent. He lost his seat in 2022. While in parliament, Patrick fought the Coalition government’s secrecy; out of parliament he is in full pursuit of its Labor successor. He’s able to devote himself to poking numerous bears thanks, in part, to financial backing from business figure Ian Melrose.

Patrick defeated, in a legal judgment, the Morrison government’s attempt to keep secret all the documents of the National Cabinet. After the election, he was still given the runaround, but finally he’s nailed that one. National Cabinet documents are now treated according to ordinary freedom-of-information provisions.

Currently, Patrick is after Anthony Albanese’s official diary, Treasury’s briefing to Treasurer Jim Chalmers on the Stage 3 tax cuts, material on AUKUS and much else besides.

The PM’s diary is particularly interesting. In opposition, then shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus sought then Attorney-General George Brandis’ diary and finally, after some trouble, extracted it.

But Patrick’s attempt to peek more deeply into Albanese’s schedule was blocked, as was another application from the Australian Financial Review.

In a submission to the Senate FOI inquiry, Patrick noted the reason given was that processing “would unreasonably divert” staff resources and also unreasonably interfere with the PM’s work.

Patrick said this “flew in the face” of the Federal Court decision in the Dreyfus case, in which more days of the relevant diary were sought (causing more work for fewer staff). The matter has gone to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The reluctance to publish the PM’s diary is at odds with the release of those of most ministers (including Chalmers and Foreign Minister Penny Wong).

Why should we have leaders’ diaries? Among other reasons, because they show who has access to a government’s top decision-maker. In Albanese’s case, it might even yield the odd clue about his relationship with Alan Joyce - who, incidentally, has been asked by those pesky senators to supply dates of any Qantas contact with the PM over the Qatar matter.

Meanwhile, Greens Senator David Shoebridge is trying to get hold of a report on the national security threats global warming poses. Albanese before the election promised an inquiry into this, and later commissioned one from the Office of National Intelligence. Now, apparently even a redacted version is too sensitive to release – because of national security.

Other crossbench senators, including independent David Pocock, have been interested in this report too. But a move in the Senate to force the issue was stymied by a cosy alliance of government and Coalition. Interesting companionships can be formed in the name of confidentiality.

Separate efforts in the Senate by Shoebridge and One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts to obtain documents relating to the March ditching of a Taipan helicopter at Jervis Bay failed. The government said there was an inquiry, which we haven’t seen. Subsequently, another Taipan crashed off the Queensland coast, with multiple fatalities.

Then there’s the politically delicate issue of the passenger manifests of VIP flights. Once, destinations and passenger lists of these flights were routinely made available by governments. That stopped under the Morrison government, and the suppression remains. A review, chaired by the Australian Federal Police and launched in 2022, recommended continued secrecy.

Again, national security is the excuse. But it’s not convincing, review or not. Knowing, well after the event, that a PM took a couple of mates, relatives or political contacts on a flight can give insights into a leader’s use of their privileges, or reveal who’s in a PM’s ear.

To some extent, this secrecy has been stymied. Passenger lists might not be available but destinations of VIP flights are, through tracking apps. At present Deputy PM Richard Marles is under criticism for taking VIP flights to Avalon, near his Geelong base, rather than catching a commercial flight to Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport.

At Tuesday’s Senate Committee hearing, Hardiman said: “FOI may not be considered a sexy subject matter or as being of life-changing importance. […] however, the FOI system is an important adjunct to the doctrine of responsible government inherent in our Westminster system of government.”

At the moment, the problem is not just the serious flaws of the FOI regime, but that the government is not living up to its own commitments to the people’s right to know.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra.

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Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.