What is an FOI request and why might it mean you could soon read George Brandis’ diary?

Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus wants to read George Brandis’ diary pretty badly. So much so he filed an FOI against him, and today the high court reached a verdict that brings Dreyfus one step closer to making that diary publicly available.

So what is an FOI and why does winning one allow us to read George Brandis’ ministerial diary? Probably more importantly though, why on earth is it important to know what Brandis scribbles in his diary?

An FOI, or more formally known as a freedom of information request, provides citizens a right of access to documents held by government ministers and agencies.

These include documents that are in paper form, electronically stored, and those that may include maps, plans, drawings and photographs.

The act essentially upholds that very important ’T’ word that democracies are built on – transparency.

It also allows individuals to see what information the government holds about them, and gives opportunity to correct such information if it’s inaccurate or misleading.

So what information can you ask to have access to under the act?

Any citizen can request access to any document held by an Australian Government Minister, most Government Agencies, and the Administration of Norfolk Island.

However, several exemptions are made under the act for information held by intelligence agencies such as ASIO, and some courts and tribunals in certain circumstances.

Ministers and agencies can also refuse to release documents if they are deemed by courts to affect national security, defence or international relations, they’re concerning law enforcement and public safety, or if they are cabinet documents.

The ABC is also protected from FOI requests in relation to certain program material. This is to ensure journalist’ don’t have to reveal their sources, and whistleblowers are protected.

An important distinction to understand with FOI requests though, is that these only apply to ‘official government documents.’

Mark Dreyfus cannot request access to George Brandis’ personal diary, or any personal communication such as his text messages and personal emails. He also cannot request Liberal party political documents, or documents relating to any MP’s electorate affairs.

Brandis’ Ministerial diary is however considered an official government communication, and therefore of public interest.

But despite being technically ‘in the public interest’, a ministerial diary doesn’t sound very interesting – so why is Dreyfus so hellbent on accessing it?

Since 2014 Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has been gunning for George Brandis to publicly release entries in his Ministerial diary, from the period between September 2013 and May 2014.

Dreyfus argues that Brandis didn’t properly consult with stakeholders prior to the government making significant cuts to the community legal sector in the 2014 federal budget.

However, Brandis says that processing the request would take hundreds of hours and affect his daily duties.

But today, the federal court in Sydney ruled against Senator Brandis’ defence, meaning that Dreyfus is one step closer to having the diary entries publicly released.

The matter could now potentially be taken to the high court of Australia in a last ditch bid to have the information protected – despite the fact it’s already cost taxpayers in excess of $50,000.

One very important thing to take away from this: FOI requests can be time consuming, fraught with legal stuff and very expensive.