Letters from the PM to the Queen

William Summers made this Freedom of Information request to Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

The request was refused by Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

From: William Summers

Delivered

Dear Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet,

Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting a copy of all letters sent from the Prime Minister(s) of Australia to Queen Elizabeth II (or her representatives) since 1 January 2013.

I look forward to hearing from you in due course.

Best wishes,

William Summers

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From: FOI
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

UNCLASSIFIED
Dear Mr Summers

To assist with the processing this Freedom of Information request, could you please confirm if this is a request to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet or should it be directed to the Office of the Prime Minister, and if so, can you provide which former Prime Minister you are seeking information from.

Kind Regards

FOI Administration Officer/Adviser
Access and Administrative Review | Honours, Symbols and Legal Policy Branch Government Division | Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet p. +61 2 6271 5849 e. | [DPMC request email] | www.dpmc.gov.au PO Box 6500 CANBERRA ACT 2600

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From: William Summers

Delivered

Thanks for your response.

This request is for letters from any Australian PM, not a specific one, so the time period would cover Julia Gillard (part), Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.

My understanding is that such letters would be held by DPMC - however if this is incorrect I am happy to redirect the request to the Office of the Prime Minister (with the proviso as above that this is not specifically for the current PM). If letters from the PM to the Queen are not the responsibility of DPMC then advice on this would be appreciated.

Many thanks,

William Summers

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From: FOI
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

UNCLASSIFIED
Dear Mr Summers

Thank you for your email.

We can accept that this is an FOI request to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in the following terms:

' Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting a copy of all letters sent from the Prime Minister(s) of Australia to Queen Elizabeth II (or her representatives) since 1 January 2013'.

We seek your clarification on your reference to the Queen or her representatives? Does this include the Governor-General?

Kind Regards

FOI Administration Officer/Adviser
Access and Administrative Review | Honours, Symbols and Legal Policy Branch Government Division | Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet p. +61 2 6271 5849 e. | [DPMC request email] | www.dpmc.gov.au PO Box 6500 CANBERRA ACT 2600

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From: William Summers

Delivered

Thank you, that is a fair question and I did not mean it to refer to the Governer-General, I meant it as in her representatives at Buckingham Palace eg if letters are addressed to her private secretary. To help keep this simple, I am happy to reword it to remove that reference:

Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting a copy of all letters sent from the Prime Minister(s) of Australia to Queen Elizabeth II since 1 January 2013.

I hope that helps clarify it.

Thanks.

William Summers

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From: FOI
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

UNCLASSIFIED

FOI/2016/192

 

Dear Mr Summers

 

Thank you for your email dated 8 November 2016, received by the Department
of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (the Department), in which you made a
request to the Department under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (the
FOI Act) in the following terms:

 

‘Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting a copy
of all letters sent from the Prime Minister(s) of Australia to Queen
Elizabeth II (or her representatives) since 1 January 2013. ’

 

Timeframe for receiving your decision

 

We received your request on 8 November 2016 and the 30 day statutory
period for processing your request commenced from the day after that date.
You should therefore expect a decision from us by Friday 9 December 2016.
The period of 30 days may be extended in certain circumstances. We will
advise you if there is any extension of time.

 

Charges

 

Agencies may decide that an applicant is liable to pay a charge in respect
of a request for access to documents. If the Department decides that you
are liable to pay a charge, we will send you a preliminary assessment of
the charge as soon as possible.

 

Publication of documents

 

Please note that information released under the FOI Act may later be
published online on our disclosure log at
[1]http://www.dpmc.gov.au/pmc/accountabilit...,
subject to certain exceptions. If you think you might wish to raise any
objections to the publication of any of the information which may be
released to you please contact us by email at [2][DPMC request email].  If you
do wish to object to the publication of information, you would need to
provide supporting reasons.

 

Exclusion of officers’ names and contact details

 

For documents that fall within scope of the request, it is the
Department’s policy to withhold:

·         any person’s signature;

·         the names and contact details of Australian Public Service
officers not in the Senior Executive Service (SES);

·         the mobile or direct numbers of SES officers;

·         the names and contact details of Ministerial staff at a level
below Chief of Staff.

 

The names and other details of SES officers will not be withheld unless
there is some reason for that information to be exempt from release. If
you require signatures, the names and contact details of non-SES officers
or Ministerial staff below the level of Chief of Staff, or the mobile or
direct numbers of SES officers please let us know at [3][DPMC request email] so
the decision-maker may consider; otherwise we will take it that you agree
to that information being excluded from the scope of your request (that
is, the information will be treated as irrelevant and redacted from any
documents for release).

 

We will write again when the Department has more information.  Further
information on FOI processing can be found at the website of the Office of
the Australian Information Commissioner at
[4]http://www.oaic.gov.au/foi-portal/about_....

 

Kind regards

 

 

FOI Administration Officer/Adviser

Access and Administrative Review | Honours, Symbols and Legal Policy
Branch

Government Division | Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

p. +61 2 6271 5849

e. | [5][DPMC request email] | [6]www.dpmc.gov.au

PO Box 6500 CANBERRA ACT 2600

 

 

 

 

 

 

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References

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1. http://www.dpmc.gov.au/pmc/accountabilit...
2. mailto:[DPMC request email]
3. mailto:[DPMC request email]
4. http://www.oaic.gov.au/foi-portal/about_...
5. mailto:[DPMC request email]
6. http://www.dpmc.gov.au/

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From: FOI
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

UNCLASSIFIED

Dear Mr Summers

 

I’m writing in relation to your FOI request with the Department of the
Prime Minister and Cabinet – reference FOI/2016/192:

 

‘Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting a copy
of all letters sent from the Prime Minister(s) of Australia to Queen
Elizabeth II (or her representatives) since 1 January 2013. ’

 

The due date for a decision on the FOI request is 9 December 2016. 

 

The Department is still finalising searches for all relevant documents and
regrettably will not be in a position to finalise the decision on the FOI
request by the due date. Accordingly, we are seeking your consent to a
20-day extension of time to the processing period, in accordance with
section 15AA of the FOI Act. We will endeavour to notify you of the
decision prior to this extended date but have requested this amount of
time finalise the Department’s decision.

 

We kindly request you confirm your consent to the extension by way of
return email. If you are not inclined to agree to an extension of time, we
ask that you let us know as soon as possible so the decision-maker may
consider seeking an extension of time from the Office of the Australian
Information Commissioner, in accordance with section 15AB of the FOI Act.

 

If you have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact me.

 

Kind regards, Debbie

 

FOI Adviser

Access and Administrative Review Section | Honours, Symbols and Legal
Policy Branch

Government Division | Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

p. 02 6271 5849 |e. [1][email address]

[2]www.dpmc.gov.au | [3]www.indigenous.gov.au

PO Box 6500 CANBERRA  ACT  2600

 

 

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1. mailto:[email address]
2. http://www.dpmc.gov.au/
3. http://www.indigenous.gov.au/

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From: William Summers

Delivered

Thanks for your response. Yes I agree to an extension of 20 days maximum.

Best wishes,

William Summers

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From: FOI
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

UNCLASSIFIED

Dear Mr Summers,

 

I’m writing in relation to your FOI request with the Department of the
Prime Minister and Cabinet—reference FOI/2016/192.

 

The due date for a decision on your request is 29 December 2016.
Regrettably, this coincides with the Department’s end of year shutdown
period and the Department will not be in a position to finalise the
decision on the FOI request before the due date due to various staff
members’ leave. Accordingly, we are seeking your consent to a 10 day
extension of time to the processing period, in accordance with section
15AA of the FOI Act. We will endeavour to notify you of the decision prior
to this extended date.

 

We kindly request you confirm your consent to the extension by way of
return email. If you are not inclined to agree to an extension of time, we
ask that you let us know as soon as possible so the decision-maker may
consider seeking an extension of time from the Office of the Australian
Information Commissioner, in accordance with section 15AB of the FOI Act.

 

Kind regards, Debbie

 

FOI Adviser

Access and Administrative Review Section | Honours, Symbols and Legal
Policy Branch

Government Division | Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

p. 02 6271 5849 |e. [1][email address]

[2]www.dpmc.gov.au | [3]www.indigenous.gov.au

PO Box 6500 CANBERRA  ACT  2600

 

Please note that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet will be
closed during its annual shutdown period from close of business 23
December 2016 through to 2 January 2017—the Department will re-open for
normal business from 3 January 2017.

 

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1. mailto:[email address]
2. http://www.dpmc.gov.au/
3. http://www.indigenous.gov.au/

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From: William Summers

Delivered

Thank you for your email.

I grant the extra 10 days. However this situation seems entirely foreseeable and I can't see any good reason for further delay so I won't be agreeing to extra extensions (and neither will the Dept be entitled to them).

15AA is supposed to be used for "complex or voluminous" cases, not to cover staff leave.

I look forward to receiving the information I've requested in early January.

Yours sincerely,

William Summers

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From: William Summers

Delivered

Dear FOI team,

This request is now overdue - beyond the statutory maximum extension time granted.

Could you please let me know when I can expect a final response?

Many thanks,

William Summers

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From: FOI
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet


Attachment FOI 2016 192 Final Decision Package.pdf
3.3M Download View as HTML


UNCLASSIFIED

Dear Mr Summers

 

Please find attached correspondence relating to your FOI request with the
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet – ref: FOI/2016/192.

 

Kind regards,

 

FOI Adviser

Access and Administrative Review | Honours, Symbols and Legal Policy
Branch

Government Division | Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

p. +61 2 6271 5849

e. | [1][DPMC request email] | [2]www.dpmc.gov.au

PO Box 6500 CANBERRA ACT 2600

 

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References

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1. mailto:[DPMC request email]
2. http://www.dpmc.gov.au/

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William Summers left an annotation ()

Note: Following a complaint to the Information Commissioner's Office (OAIC) about the very delayed response time, I am now continuing this case directly with the OAIC. I am asking it to overturn the decision to deny access, and have submitted a letter outlining my reasoning for refuting both exemptions used (s33 and s47C).

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William Summers left an annotation ()

LETTER SUBMITTED TO THE OAIC (POSTED HERE FOR INFO ONLY):

I write regarding my request to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) for letters from the Prime Minister to the Queen since 1 January 2013, and to ask the OAIC to intervene again in this case.

Having finally received a response from DPMC, I wish to dispute the decision it has made. I am disputing both exemptions cited (s33 and s47C of the FOI Act) for the reasons outlined below. I ask that the OAIC directs the Department to remove all exemptions and release this information in full.

All previous correspondence about this request between myself and the Department is published at https://www.righttoknow.org.au/request/l....

Section 33 (1 document)

The Department’s use of s33 suggests that release of the letter in question would damage the international relations of the Commonwealth (s33a(iii)). I dispute this on the following grounds:

• I find it highly improbable that the release of a letter from the Prime Minister to the Queen could be considered to be a threat to Commonwealth relations. As the Department’s own response acknowledges, s33 guidelines state that such a threat must be “real and substantial” and “supported by evidence”. Yet the Department has provided no evidence about why it believes release of these letters would cause international damage. Unless it does so, this point should be struck off.

Further to this, the Department claims that damage would occur because other nations would lose confidence in Australia being “a reliable recipient of confidential communications” – yet this FOI concerns information sent by the Prime Minister, not received. Therefore I ask that this point – and the whole use of this exemption – is struck from the response, on the basis that it is a misinterpretation of the request, the exemption, or both. Any alternative argument about confidence in Australia as a “reliable sender of confidential communications” does not make logical sense, and hence cannot be alternatively used in this case.

The letter in question is also now historical: over three years old and written by a former Prime Minister no longer in the role. This clearly diminishes the risk of any relationship damage between the current Government and foreign states, and therefore also diminishes the argument against its release.

• The Queen is not a ‘regular’ foreign head of state – she is also Australia’s head of state, and any letters between the Australian Prime Minister and the Queen must be considered to be sent in that capacity. Therefore I dispute that concerns about damage to foreign relations are even a legitimate basis for an argument: this is a letter between the Australian Prime Minister and the Australian head of state, who happens to be foreign. Any concerns about other nations losing trust in Australia because of the release of these letters are therefore overblown and should be discounted. Everybody knows that the Queen is the Australian head of state, and other nations would be reasonably expected to accept that these letters are received in that capacity. It cannot be assumed that the release of letters from the Australian Prime Minister to the Queen would have any negative knock-on effects internationally, and no evidence has been provided so suggest it would do so.

Overall then, the Department has not, in my view, made any reasonable case as to how the release of this information could possibly damage the international relations of the Commonwealth. Therefore the use of the use of s33 as an exemption should be overturned.

Lastly, as a point of fact, the document declared as exempt under s33 is dated from 2010 – before the time period stated in my request (which begins in 2013). I assume this is an error and the document date should in fact be November 2013, not November 2010 as stated in the table of documents. I would be grateful for clarification of this.

Section 47C (10 documents)

I dispute the use of s47C to block this information on the following grounds:

• There is an undeniably strong public interest in these documents being made open and transparent. In order to exclude this this information on public interest grounds, the Department must show that it is contrary to the public interest, on balance, for this information to be released. It has not done so.

Correspondence between the Australian Prime Minister and the Australian head of state should be open to scrutiny regarding the topics covered and the “recommendations and advice” (in the Department’s words) the Prime Minister is offering. It is legitimate, for example, to question just how much influence the Prime Minister has over the head of state, and vice versa. Australians have a right to know what “recommendations and advice” he or she is giving.

Some of this information will undoubtedly be of strong public interest. For example, the letter dated March 2014 very likely relates to correspondence between Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Queen regarding the reestablishment of knighthoods and dames in Australia. [This is evidenced by the fact that the cover letter for this correspondence is already in the public domain, dated March 2014.]

I cannot know what is contained in the other correspondence, however it is clear that, at least in part, the correspondence contains discussion and advice of clear historical significance to Australia, potentially about controversial issues. Therefore it should be released to support both political scrutiny and historical understanding.

This also brings into play s11B(b) as a public interest argument in favour of disclosure (informing debate on a matter of public importance).

• The Department uses the Tribunal case of Wood v DPMC (AATA 945) as part of its argument against disclosure, stating that the Deputy President of the Tribunal accepted that “public servants need to be able to give totally frank advice to Ministers, that on occasions they do so on an understanding that the advice will be confidential”. I would like to make two points about the Wood case and its use as a comparison:

1) The Wood case regarded a briefing note given from civil servants to the then Prime Minister (Julia Gillard). The letters in question here are from the Prime Minister to the Queen, and not anything to do with civil servants.

2) The Department’s response does not go into any more detail about the Wood v DPMC case, beyond describing the Tribunal Deputy President’s comments about the benefits of keeping advice confidential. However I note that, further to the comments the Department has attributed to the Deputy President, she actually went on to say in her ruling:

“…however, I do not accept that advice given on those occasions need always be kept confidential and out of the public eye. To reach that conclusion would run counter to the FOI Act itself which is based on every person’s having a right of access to a document unless disclosure of that document would have one of the outcomes set out in Part IV of the legislation read with s 11B as appropriate.”

The Tribunal decision in that case was in fact to reject DPMC’s claim for exemptions under s47C, and to order the information to be disclosed in full on public interest grounds (“other than the two passages that I have found to be exempt under s42”). The ruling in the Wood case is, therefore, evidence for disclosure of the information, not non-disclosure.

The Tribunal ruling also noted that “four years have passed” since the documents were created, and the Prime Minister in question was no longer in the role. “It is difficult to see how disclosure of such advice some four years after the circumstances in which it was given will inhibit public servants in giving such comprehensive advice in future,” it states.

More than three years have now passed since the creation of most of the correspondence I am requesting, with a different Prime Minister now in place. The argument for using s47C as an exemption for those letters is therefore even weaker. Borrowing the Tribunal’s argument above, it is difficult to see how the disclosure of advice three years ago would inhibit the Prime Minister from giving advice in future. Letters 1-9 were all written by a Prime Minister no longer in the role; this must be taken into account when balancing risks versus public interest.

Taking into consideration the information above, I would be grateful if you could review this decision and order DPMC to release the information in full.

Finally, I would like to add that I am disappointed with the long and unreasonable timeframe DPMC took to send a response to my request, which was well beyond the statutory limits required under FOI legislation. Therefore I am reluctant to go back to the Department to request an internal review as the next step in this process, given the likelihood of further delays. I am instead asking the AOIC to now take up this case. I urge you to press DPMC to deal with this matter quickly, and to release this information without further delay.

I look forward to hearing from you in due course.

Best wishes

William Summers

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Peter Timmins left an annotation ()

The Australian Information Commissioner in William Summers and Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (Freedom of information) [2018] AICmr 9 (16 January 2018) decided these documents were not exempt and ordered the Department to release them to Mr Summers.

Congrats on a battle well fought.

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Things to do with this request

Anyone:
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet only: