Friday, May 29, 2020

A victory for freedom of information in Australia

Australia's High Court has ruled that the "palace letters" between the queen and then-Governor-General John Kerr are public records rather than private papers:

Historian Jenny Hocking has won her High Court bid to access the letters exchanged between then governor-general Sir John Kerr and the Queen around the time of the dismissal of the Whitlam government.

Until now, the National Archives of Australia had refused to release the documents, known as the "Palace letters", saying they were private papers.

But Professor Hocking told the High Court correspondence between a governor-general and a monarch was the property of the Commonwealth, and not private.

In a majority ruling, the High Court agreed with Professor Hocking, and found the letters to be Commonwealth records.

Weirdly, this wasn't on the basis of the "pub test": that the communications of the Governor-General and foreign monarch about whether to roll the Prime Minister are so obviously official in nature that of course they're an official record. Instead, they decide it simply on the basis of property. Commonwealth records are records that are the property of (certain parts of) the Australian Government, which includes the Governor-General's official secretary. The letters were held by the official secretary as part of their official duties, and submitted by them to the Archives. And that fact alone demonstrates they were Commonwealth property and therefore a Commonwealth record. Additionally, the fact that it was deposited by the official secretary means it was deposited by a Commonwealth institution, not a private institution, so private access arrangements simply do not apply.

Hopefully this means Professor Hocking will now receive access to the records. As for whether there's actually anything interesting in them, that remains to be seen.