Secret briefings used to justify imposing February lockdown in Victoria must be released in the public interest, the privacy watchdog, the Office of Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) has ruled. In a decision of volcanic proportions, Joanne Kummrow of the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner has ordered the release of more than 100 pages of the Department of Health briefings.
The department has 14 days to appeal against the order. If it chooses not to appeal, it will not only be making public the health advice it relied upon for February lockdown, it may also open the way to ask for all advice relating to all six lockdowns in Victoria to be revealed.
It will be a first in any state in Australia to make such sensitive briefing material publicly available.
The Department of Health attempted to block the release of the material, claiming the files revealed “high-level deliberative processes of government” and risked jeopardising the trust between public officials and a minister.
It also argued releasing the material jeopardized the preparation of future briefings and ability of key decision-makers to implement appropriate health directions.
But the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner’s public access deputy commissioner Joanne Kummrow disagreed and said releasing the material was in the public interest.
She said one key document contained important information about the way the Victorian government responded to Covid-19, including the rationale for public health orders.
“I consider there is significant public interest in providing members of the community the ability to participate in such processes and to hold governments to account for the decisions it has made,” Ms Kummrow said.
“The documents describe the reasons for placing restrictions on the movements of members of the community, including in relation to sensitive matters, such as hospital visits. These decisions have a profound effect on the lives of Victorians.
“In these circumstances, members of the community have a right to access documents that describe the background information considered, the reasons, the legal basis for, and documents that record those decisions.”
The state Opposition had requested the department of Health for access to the advice under Freedom of Information laws but was refused. That refusal prompted the state Opposition to appeal to OVIC.
OVIC has also upheld the department’s decision not to release five documents because of legal privilege.
David Davis, the leader of the opposition in the upper house, who has been fighting for access to the documents, said Victorians deserved to know the reasons they had been locked down.
“The Andrews Labor government, through its health officers, has clamped down families, schoolkids and businesses on the basis of ‘health advice’,” he said.
“Yet it has never once released the formal written briefs relied on by the chief health officer or delegate. Why have they hidden this information?
“OVIC has ordered the release of briefings relating to the February lockdown. It’s time Daniel Andrews came clean and provided those documents in full.”
Mr Davis said the failure to release the advice would call into question the government’s credibility.
“These secret CHO briefs are meant to be based on scientific evidence,” he said.
“They are meant to be based on a proportional balancing of impacts and meant to be transparent and accountable under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act.
“The secrecy, the cover-up, the resistance by Labor in blocking the release of these documents is disgraceful. Businesses slammed shut and families blocked from seeing loved ones are entitled to see the reasons behind their lockdown in full.
“It’s a scandal that these documents have been kept secret all the way through the pandemic.”
BT believes the Department of Health would take time to properly review the decision handed down by Joanne Kummrow for any further action.
There has already been one successful challenge to the secrecy in the Supreme Court of Victoria. In September the Supreme Court ordered the government to release secret data relied on to extend Melbourne’s curfew.