Publishing ministerial diaries in NSW: one small step for democracy

By Tony Katsigiannis

Monday December 8, 2014

Innovation rarely happens in an orderly or planned manner, nor does it necessarily involve one big idea or breakthrough. It can be defensive rather than pro-active, and it can seem minor or even trivial in nature. But it can have significant implications for the way things are done.

One such innovation is the decision by New South Wales Premier Mike Baird (pictured) to require all ministers to publish extracts from their diaries, detailing meetings held with organisations and individuals who seek to influence government policy or decisions. It commenced on July 1, and mirrors a similar scheme operating in Queensland.

On the surface, this is a small innovation. It was prompted by a range of external factors, including: reputational damage to the government by the activities of lobbyists; recommendations by the Independent Commission Against Corruption relating to political lobbyists going back as far 2010; and the introduction of a bill by Opposition Leader John Robertson requiring the publication of ministerial diaries of all meetings and interactions with lobbyists, private companies and MPs relating to commercial decisions or transactions.

To his credit, Baird — who has quickly become a proponent of innovation in the NSW public sector — grasped the nettle, and introduced a “disclosure rule” requiring all ministers to publish quarterly diary summaries of external meetings held on portfolio-related matters.

Under this rule, it is not necessary to disclose information relating to personal, electorate or party-political matters, social or public functions or events, or matters for which there is an over-riding public interest against disclosure (presumably cabinet and commercial-in-confidence matters). But there is a sting in the tail relating to social or public functions:

“While the requirement to provide meeting summaries does not apply to social or public functions or events, where substantive discussion of issues are raised with the Minister at social or other functions that concern the Minister’s ministerial portfolio or concern other policies or decisions made by the Minister in his/her capacity as a member of Cabinet, the meeting should be disclosed.”

Arguably, it will take just one leak from one person in the know to bring down a non-compliant minister.

In his press release announcing the policy, Baird stated that final responsibility for determining if a meeting should not be disclosed rests with the secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet. No doubt these powers will be exercised with great care. After all, department heads can be called before the NSW Parliament to answer questions.

Both the diaries and the memo relating to the publication of extracts of the diaries are available on the DPC website. One curious feature of the memo is the provision requiring ministerial staff to obtain the consent of meeting attendees to the disclosure of information about them. This seems to go against the spirit of the Premier’s public announcement. It should be a condition of ministers agreeing to any meetings that attendees do not have a right to confidentiality.

Some of the media commentary on the initiative has been negative. In a recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald, state political editor Sean Nicholls labelled the innovation a “flop” and a “joke”. His point is that the published diaries contain very little detail, if any, about what the meeting was called for and what was discussed, and the diaries often only show the name of the organisation that met the minister, not the names of the individuals in the room.

My advice to Sean is to be patient. It was clear from the beginning that the policy was made on the run in response to external pressure. The Premier had stated that the publicly released diary information would be a summary only, and would be limited to disclosure of the organisation or individual with whom the meeting occurred, details of any registered lobbyists present, and the purpose of the meeting.

It is a good start, and while there may be shortcomings, the Premier has kept open the possibility of further changes. In this regard, his department will co-ordinate a review of the system over the first 12 months and consider additional reforms. The opposition’s proposal for the creation of a position of inspector-general for parliamentary standards is certainly worthy of consideration.

The genie is out of the bottle, and nothing can put it back.

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