| Guardian Australia | Extract
CANBERRA - The Australian government is fighting to keep secret draft versions of its strategy for helping the Pacific deal with climate change, prompting concerns it may be hiding changes that weakened the final report.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade released its climate change action strategy in November, detailing how the foreign aid program would be used to help developing nations – particularly those in the Pacific – deal with global heating.
The department’s draft report had languished in the office of the foreign minister, Marise Payne, for nine months, and the delays had frustrated foreign aid groups, particularly given Pacific nations have identified climate change as the region’s single biggest threat.
Seeking to understand whether the minister’s office influenced the final version, the Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi lodged a freedom of information request for the draft copy, which the department gave to the minister’s office in February last year.
But the government is now refusing to release the draft, arguing it is not in the public interest and would “undermine the value and authority of the final climate change strategy”.
The department is relying on exemptions in the FOI act that block the release of “deliberative matter” – material that has been used in the making of decisions.
“I consider that there is no identifiable benefit or public interest to release this type of draft information,” the department’s decision-maker said.
“Release of the deliberations that form part of the drafting process would undermine the value and authority of the final Climate Change Action Strategy. I therefore consider that it would not be in the public interest to release the draft Climate Change Action Strategy.”
Payne was previously questioned about delays to the release of the final report during Senate estimates, following reports her office had sat on it for months. She said the release of the final report was delayed because changes were required to “better reflect our international climate change engagement prior to the Paris Agreement coming into effect in 2020, particularly noting – for those who are oblivious – that we have just had a federal election”.
“The government wants to take the opportunity to make sure that strategies such as this and other relevant documentation are contemporary and are relevant to the changes in our commitments, which will be seen under the Paris Agreement,” Payne said in July.
But Faruqi said the refusal to release the draft version “absolutely smacks of a cover-up”. She said the argument that there was no public interest in its release “makes no sense” and raised suspicion about efforts to keep it secret.
“This strategy appears to have sat on the foreign minister’s desk for almost nine months and we simply don’t know how it was altered in that time,” she said.
“The public has a right to know whether the government politically interfered to water down the strategy.”