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Honours list papers to stay suppressed

Date

Emma Macdonald, Markus Mannheim

Senator Michael Ronaldson demanded the office justify the amount spent on the case.

Senator Michael Ronaldson demanded the office justify the amount spent on the case. Photo: Penny Bradfield

The secret papers that detail how Australia Day honours are allotted will remain suppressed after a court ruled the public had no right to access them.

The full bench of the Federal Court's decision is likely to end a lone nurse's five-year battle against the Governor-General's office, which has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousand dollars.

Karen Kline, of Brisbane, tried in 2007 to access documents about an anti-discrimination advocate whom she had suggested for an award, after the office decided against her nomination.

She later used freedom of information law to request papers outlining how the Order of Australia council decided who was worthy of the awards, including its ''working manuals, policy guidelines and criteria''.

However, the Governor-General's office refused both requests, citing its special power under the federal FoI Act to suppress all documents other than those relating to ''administrative'' matters.

Earlier this year, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal ruled the awards' decision-making processes ''occurred behind closed doors for good reason''.

''Choices have to be made between the nominees, and unsuccessful nominees may be upset when they are overlooked. Making those choices is akin to a judicial function that involves the exercise of delicate judgment,'' the tribunal ruled.

The Federal Court upheld that decision late on Wednesday, saying the documents were not merely administrative, but related to one of the office's substantive functions: appointing people to the Order of Australia.

The court also ruled that Ms Kline should pay the government's legal costs.

Ms Kline, who was represented by barrister Tom Brennan acting on a pro bono basis, said on Thursday the ruling had devastated her.

She said she recently lost her job as a result of the Queensland government's spending cuts and would be bankrupted.

''My motivations for this case were the higher causes of greater government accountability and stronger FOI laws,'' she said.

"I've just lost my job, I have no assets and my partner has cancer. This is a terrible time for me.''

The Governor-General's office told Parliament last month it had spent more than $125,000 on legal fees related to the case, as well as almost 5700 ''staff hours responding to the various issues raised''.

''Whilst the office would prefer not to have had to divert significant resources to this matter, it has responded thoroughly to every matter raised,'' it said.

Liberal senator Michael Ronaldson, who has demanded the office justify the amount of money spent on the case, had previously likened the office to a ''secret society''.

A former official secretary to the governor-general, Martin Bonsey, reviewed the office's awards and appointments procedures last year and warned against allowing people to appeal against the Order of Australia council's decisions.

He also said the nature of decisions about honours was ''largely intuitive rather than analytical''.

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