January 30, 2012
The Baillieu government is fighting to keep secret the public service’s advice after the November 2010 election. Photo: Kate Geraghty
THE Baillieu government is spending thousands of taxpayer dollars in a fight to keep secret the public service’s advice on its election policies.
Despite coming to power promising better accountability and transparency – and reform to freedom of information law – the Coalition has refused to release the so-called ”blue books”, the bureaucracy’s advice to the incoming government after the November 2010 election.
The Commonwealth government has released its incoming briefs – advice to Labor administrations is called ”red books” – since 2007, and now 13 federal departments have released their briefs since the 2010 election.
The NSW Coalition government released parts of its blue books for the Department of Premier and Cabinet last month.
But the Baillieu government has engaged an expensive legal team – headed by respected QC Peter Hanks – to fight The Age’s request under freedom of information law for the blue books of the Department of Sustainability and Environment. The test case was heard in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal last week.
In its submissions, the government said releasing the blue book would ”delay the operation of effective government in Victoria” and damage its relationship with the public service.
The government argues the books are internal working documents and their release would mislead the public.
The deputy secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Dr Pradeep Philip, admitted under cross-examination that much of the advice about cabinet would come from his department’s contributions to the blue book, not the Department of Sustainability and Environment material sought by The Age.
The Age’s barrister, Phoebe Knowles, argued in submissions to the tribunal that the documents were not part of an internal working process because the public servants who wrote them during the November election campaign did not know who would be the next government, premier, minister or cabinet.
The documents The Age has requested contain information about the department’s status and policy advice to the Coalition government on the implementation of its election commitments in the environment area, including its controversial decision to return cattle to the Alpine National Park.
”The advice in these blue books is from public servants with many years of policy experience and a long history in Victoria’s management of its natural assets,” The Age said in submissions to tribunal senior member Ian Proctor.
”Policy advice that is impartial and based on the expertise of publicly paid bureaucrats should not be hidden from the public. It creates the foundation for informed debate.”
Freedom of information expert and lawyer Peter Timmins said the Commonwealth, which had disclosed red books across 13 departments since 2010, including Treasury and Defence.