ACT News

Stanhope stymied in FOI bid on renaming of Fraser electorate

Attempts to uncover details about the decision to rename a Canberra electorate have been unsuccessful.

Jon Stanhope has been stymied in his attempts to find out more about the decision to change the name of the Canberra electorate of Fraser to "Fenner", with documents released under freedom of information almost entirely blacked out.

Mr Stanhope is vehemently opposed to the decision to strip Jim Fraser of recognition in the Canberra seat named for him in 1974. The name is to be changed to Fenner, so that "Fraser" can be used for a Victorian electorate to recognise former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. 

Mr Stanhope is appalled at the decision, which he regards as an insult to the memory of the former Canberra MP and his family, and a move he believes would also be opposed by Malcolm Fraser and Professor Frank Fenner.

​He made a freedom of information request of the Australian Electoral Commission for all documents relating to the decision. Twenty-two documents have been released, but almost everything in them is blacked out, leaving very little information other than references to Professor Fenner, a highly regarded Canberra scientist who died in 2010.

In his decision, the electoral commission's Paul Pirani points to irrelevance as the reason for redacting most of the material, which includes shortlists of names, minutes of meetings, and emails. 

"This is clear as mud," Mr Stanhope said of the results of his request. 

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"It's an outrageous misuse of the FOI Act. As a citizen, you want to understand why a decision that's important to you was made and I ask for the detail. And you don't get it on something as simple a renaming a federal electorate ...

"The extent to which the Commonwealth public service goes to not release information really is quite remarkable."

In one email, the commission's redistribution committee, made up of Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers, ACT returning officer Andrew Kristjanson, ACT Auditor-General Maxine Cooper and ACT Surveyor-General Jeff Brown, asks the ACT Place Names Committee for information on six people, but only Professor Fenner's name is not blacked out.

At a meeting on June 24, the redistribution committee considered "12 new names" and after "considering their merits" it shortlisted seven. Six of the seven are blanked out, with only Professor Fenner remaining. It is not clear whether reasons for the choices were recorded in the minutes, because virtually everything else is redacted.

At a meeting on July 7 of the same group, what remains of the minutes records, "The committee considered the shortlisted names agreed at the previous meeting, together with an additional five names suggested by committee members." After "considering the merits of these names", it shortlisted four, but again only Professor Fenner's name is left uncovered by black ink

Another document, from July 15, notes that "a majority of the eight suggestions [from the public] were in favour of changing the name of the Division of Fraser", although it also says "it should be noted that the name adopted is not one which was contained in the suggestions or comments on suggestions which were made".

On July 20, minutes of the committee record that "retiring the name of 'Fraser' would provide the opportunity for this name to be used during the next Victorian redistribution to recognise the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, who had a strong connection to Victoria", an approach that would be "consistent with the guidelines". And so it made a unanimous decision to "retire the name of 'Fraser' and replace it with 'Fenner'."

The minutes provide no further insight into the decision.

More comprehensive information about the name change, including the five names suggested in submissions, and another 21 names considered, is freely available on the commission's website. A final decision is to be made before the end of January.

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