Briefed: 753 things the government was worried about in 2016

A lion called Nelson that died at Perth Zoo in November 2016. Source: Perth Zoo

A massive trove of documents uncovered by SBS News under freedom of information law reveals the subjects considered most important by the federal government ahead of Senate Estimates in October.

Barriers to bushfire prevention, an international torture treaty, the water funding “cliff" and African Lions - these are some of the issues that consumed the Australian government in 2016.

SBS News has collected the names of 753 briefs provided to ministers and department heads as part of the Senate Estimates process in October using freedom of information laws.

The information - collected and published for the first time - provides a snapshot into what the government considered its most pressing issues of the year.

While the collection is extensive, eight departments evaded freedom of information inquiries by using a variety of excuses, including claims that topic lists of briefs don’t exist, that producing such a list would "substantially and unreasonably divert” resources in the agency or that the work involved in releasing a briefs list warrants additional charges.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet claimed the list of briefs could not be found.

"It is simply not believable for any department, especially one as important as Prime Minister and Cabinet to assert that it does not brief ministers and officials ahead of Estimates hearings.”

Labor Senator Penny Wong said the release of this kind of information was in the public interest, and raised doubts over the veracity of the department’s response.

"It is simply not believable for any department, especially one as important as Prime Minister and Cabinet to assert that it does not brief ministers and officials ahead of Estimates hearings,” she told SBS.

As part of the Senate Estimates process departments write briefs, or sometimes “hot issue briefs”, to prepare government representatives for questions by senators.

Although the briefs themselves are exempt from freedom of information law, the names of the briefs can be informative.

As part of the 753 briefs collected, four separate departments have prepared responses around the issue of potential contamination of airports and surrounding land due to firefighting foam (the briefs contain “PFOS”, "PFAS" or “PFOA”).

The Attorney-General’s portfolio covers many of the issues that have plagued Senator George Brandis in 2016, including controversies over the Solicitor-General and the Bell Group litigation. A brief on the Bell Group matter had been prepared in October, one month before the story came to prominence.

There are also more trivial matters covered by the collection, including nine briefs on election commitments and one on admission prices to Canberra’s science museum Questacon, following Labor’s calls during the election to reduce the cost of a visit.

Spot anything? Email Jackson or reach him on Twitter.

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