Premier's claim in doubt amid Flegg turmoil
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman. Photo: Glenn Hunt
A government letter has cast doubt on Queensland Premier Campbell Newman's claim political staffers no longer made decisions on the release of documents under Right to Information laws.
Evidence that one of Housing and Public Works Minister Bruce Flegg's media officers made a decision on a Right to Information application came amid turmoil in Dr Flegg's office.
Dr Flegg sacked senior media adviser Graeme Hallett yesterday and chief of staff Fraser Stephen last Thursday, saying he had lost confidence in both men.
Housing and Public Works Minister Bruce Flegg. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
Ahead of the second-last parliamentary sitting week of the year, Mr Hallett is now planning a morning news conference today to denounce his old boss's performance.
Mr Hallett, who was appointed as senior media adviser soon after the March election, indicated he would release documentation and discuss “aspects of Dr Flegg's behaviour that makes him not fit to be a minister”.
The government is not yet commenting on claims Mr Stephen's departure was related to the handling of Right to Information applications, but the opposition has seized on a letter that contradicts Mr Newman's claims about how the issues were handled under the Liberal National Party administration.
In Parliament on November 1, Mr Newman responded to opposition questions over the release of ministerial diary entries. He insisted decisions over RTI applications were no longer handled by political staffers in ministerial officers.
“We have placed the assessment of RTI requests in the hands of the officials of the respective departments – unlike those opposite, who used to allow their own political apparatchiks in their own ministerial offices to assess such requests,” he told Parliament.
Mr Newman said members of the former Labor government had “allowed political apparatchiks – their own Labor Party members in many cases – in their own offices to be the RTI assessment officers under the act”.
Mr Newman said the practice was not “appropriate” or “best practice” and was akin to “Caesar judging Caesar”.
“I think that is highly questionable, and that is why we do not do it,” he said, adding departmental officials made their assessment as independent public servants.
However, the opposition has written to Speaker Fiona Simpson arguing Mr Newman's statements were untrue, pointing to a Department of Housing and Public Works letter indicating a political staffer had been involved in an RTI decision.
An RTI and privacy manager named Dr Flegg's media adviser when responding to an opposition request for the minister's diary entries between April and August.
Under a section labelled 'authority', the October 23 letter says: “In accordance with a Direction by the Minister for Housing and Public Works, Mr Martin Kennedy, Media Advisor, has made this decision under section 31 of the RTI Act.”
That section of the law says an application to a minister for access "may be dealt with by the person the Minister directs, either generally or in a particular case".
The letter says a decision has been made to release 38 diary folios in full and partially release the remaining 95 folios.
“Mr Kennedy advises that he decided to make deletions to 33 folios as the information falls outside the parameters of your application,” the letter says.
It says Mr Kennedy took steps in accordance with RTI laws and “advised he has decided to grant partial access to 95 pages as disclosure of the information would be contrary to the public interest” according to the legislation.
The letter says the minister's daily diary contains meetings and events of a private and personal nature and also contains scheduled meetings with individuals and representatives of organisations and businesses.
Deputy Opposition Leader Tim Mulherin wrote to Ms Simpson on November 1 arguing Mr Newman had misled Parliament and the issue should be referred to the Ethics Committee.
Mr Kennedy declined to comment on the matter last night, but indicated more would be said today.
Earlier, the head of Mr Newman's government media unit declined to comment on claims Mr Stephen's departure was connected to the handling of RTI applications.
The spokesman said Dr Flegg had lost confidence in Mr Stephen and the government would not be canvassing the reasons.
Asked whether Mr Newman still had confidence in Dr Flegg, the spokesman said: “Yes, he does.”
Parliament this week is expected to debate plans to shake up local government, planning, education, disability and guardianship laws.
However, an hour before the opening of Parliament today, Mr Hallett is set to front the media to outline his concerns about Dr Flegg's performance.
Mr Hallett, who was appointed as Dr Flegg's senior ministerial media adviser soon after the March election, has previously served Dr Flegg.
He had worked as a ministerial adviser to the Howard government but came to Queensland in 2006 to help Dr Flegg, then Liberal leader, on the election campaign that was dominated by stumbles.
Mr Hallett was at the centre of a controversy in federal politics in 2005 over proposed funding to dredge a creek in the marginal NSW electorate of Dobell.
The then-local government minister Jim Lloyd defended Mr Hallett, saying an email he sent to a council advising how to handle changing funding needs was “stupidly worded”.