The Dark We Can't See


In mid January trade minister Andrew Robb suggested it was nonsense for a Daily Telegraph reporter to suggest that the public was "in the dark" over the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, which negotiating states have been working on in complete secrecy for months. To oversimplify only slightly, the agreement seeks broadly to export US attitudes to intellectual property into other country's laws in return for trade access.

This is a bold statement.  One that's able to be measured.

The day after the statement I sent a request under the Freedom of Information Act to DFAT.  That request read simply (along with salutations, sign offs and etc);

On the 12th of January the Daily Telegraph ran an article in which
the minister is reported as dismissing critics of the trans-pacific
partnership agreement, labelling it nonsense to suggest that people
were "in the dark" as regards the agreement. It is highly
encouraging and refreshing to note the minister's approach to
transparency and openness.

Subsequently I am writing to request under the Freedom of
Information Act, the most recent working draft of the agreement.

After 30 days, 3 minutes inside of the legally required response period, the department replied refusing access to the draft in its entirety.  Their reasons were that to release the document would;

divulge any information or matter communicated in confidence by or on behalf of a foreign government, an authority of a foreign government or an international organisation to the government of the Commonwealth

and, to combine separate points set out in the decision

damage our working relations with the other parties (foreign governments) to the negotiations, undermine the trust that the other government have in the Australian Government's ability to protect information provided in confidence and prejudice the willingness of foreign governments to provide confidential information to the Australian Government in future

The respondent further advised they consider it would undermine candour in the negotiations as well as Australia's negotiating position

The respondent assured me however that once the negotiations were final and irreversible and the Commonwealth is committed to what has been negotiated, the text would become public, so there's that.

I responded to this decision a within a few hours of receiving it with;

I am writing to request an internal review under S54 of the Department
of Foreign Affairs and Trade's handling of my FOI request, seeking
access to the most recent draft of the Trans Pacific Partnership

The basis for my original request was that the minister advised an
interviewing journalist on the 12th of January that it was nonsense
to suggest that the information I sought under the act was not
available. The refusal of my request in toto for the reasons
provided must therefore be an error in application of the act, or
the minister was either mistaken or misquoted to an unprecedented
extent, or the minister was aware that the information requested
was able to be refused under the act but he expected discretion on
the part of the department to be exercised and the information be
released. Whichever the circumstance, the minister has made not
only a clear public statement that the information is available to
the public, but emphatically suggested it absurd to assert a
position to the contrary - a position the department appears to

That response signs off that a full history of the request and correspondence relating to it, is available on the most excellent Right to Know website here.  And it is.

I'll update when I have more.

Image: c.mcbrien