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Red and blue books best kept hidden, say mandarins

Incoming government briefings — commonly known as the red and blue books — should continue to be treated as cabinet documents and thus not be released in full to the public, say former senior public servants.

The Daniel Andrews Labor government in Victoria has refused to release the contents of its red book under Freedom of Information, despite Labor criticising the Baillieu and Napthine governments for similar actions while in opposition.

The briefings are written by bureaucrats for incoming governments, with those prepared for Labor known as “red books” and those for the Coalition as “blue books”.

But former senior public servants have expressed concern about the potential impact of increased transparency on such briefings.

“They were always held in confidence. Incremental changes in FOI laws have undermined the practice,” Terry Moran, former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and former secretary of Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, told The Mandarin. “Until such time as Cabinet papers generally are available under FOI (which many of them should be) I am one who believes that red and blue books should continue to be protected with the status of Cabinet documents.”

Although red and blue books have traditionally been kept away from the public eye, in 2010 the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet partly released the content of its briefings to Julia Gillard. Treasury also released its 2010 incoming government briefing.

Changing expectations and practice surrounding the transparency of such documents have meant different departmental secretaries have chosen different paths when it comes to IGBs — some prefer to prepare a bland, easily-releasable document, while others choose to create a fuller briefing and deal with FOI requests as they arise, redacting confidential information as necessary.

Meredith Sussex, former head of the Victorian Cabinet Office and former deputy secretary at the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, says the ability of public servants to give high quality advice is the most important issue. Factual briefings should be made public, she told The Mandarin, but politicians should ultimately be held accountable for their decisions, not public servants:

“My general view is that politicians are elected to make decisions and they have many sources of advice. The public service is one, albeit important, source of that advice. Insofar as any briefings are predominantly factual, they should be available to the public, subject to the normal legal constraints (privacy, security etc). But advice based on opinion and judgement is and should be a different question.

“Whether a minister chooses to accept or reject the opinion or judgement of a senior public servant is up to her or him. She or he is the one who is accountable to the electorate for the decision. In my view, it can only be destructive to the relationship between a minister and the public service for a potential difference of opinion to become a political issue, which is the likely situation if policy advice briefs were routinely made public. In these circumstances, a public servant would almost inevitably self censor to avoid embarrassing his or her minister. And limiting a public servant’s capacity to give timely ‘frank and fearless’ advice undermines the Westminster system.

“The pre-election briefing books are one occasion when public servants give very wide ranging advice, often on issues on which the new government’s policy views are unclear. In these circumstances, the public release of the documents clearly has the potential to damage the relationship between the government and the public service to the detriment of good governance overall.”

Briefings for the incoming Abbott government were not made public, leading to charges of a lack of transparency from the opposition. When asked why the IGB for the Abbott government was not released in 2013, unlike the previous two times, then-secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department Roger Wilkins responded:

“The last two times we played softball and now we are playing hardball. Seriously. … If you want democracy to work in any sensible fashion, then you cannot stop the public service from giving candid advice, particularly to an incoming government and probably in areas such as this.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.