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Medieval combat for ‘the Palace letters’ (part 5)

By Dr George Venturini  

Explicitly, Justice Griffiths declared that he could “not accept the applicant’s core submission to the effect that the correspondence comprising AA1984/609 should be viewed as the property of the Commonwealth simply because its subject matter relates to the performance of the Governor-General’s role and function. First, in my respectful view, that submission adopts an unduly broadbrush approach to the role and responsibilities of the Governor-General. The position of the Governor-General involves the exercise of a wide range of powers and functions, some of which involve conduct and actions taken other than on the advice of the Prime Minister, a Minister or the Executive Council. Notably, in Kline, the plurality drew attention to some of the unique features of the role of Governor-General when their Honours said at Para. 38. The Governor-General, in common with judges, takes an oath to undertake his or her functions without fear or favour. However, as mentioned, the position of the Governor-General calls for the exercise of a multiplicity of powers and functions, many (but not all) of which are undertaken in public, and some (but few) of which involve making decisions other than on the advice of a Minister or the Executive Council. (Para., 119).

Secondly, I accept Archives’ submission that the personal and private correspondence between a Governor-General and The Queen does not involve the Governor-General exercising the executive power of the Commonwealth within the meaning of s 61 of the Constitution. For the reasons given above, that correspondence has a strong sui generis quality which places it apart from much of the other correspondence sent or received by a Governor-General. (Para. 120)

Thirdly, I do not consider that resolution of the issues in these proceedings is assisted by reference to authorities in the United States of America which were relied upon by the applicant, concerning the ownership of Presidential materials and tape-recorded conversations involving President Nixon (see, for example, Nixon v Sampson 389 F. Supp. 107 (1975) and Nixon v Administrator of General Services 433 US 425 (1977)). Different constitutional and statutory considerations, as well as well as different conventions, inform the view which has been taken there to the effect that, as a general principle of law, records which are generated, created, produced or kept by a public official in the administration and performance of the powers and duties of a public office belong to the government and may not be considered the private property of the official. (Para. 121).

Fourthly, however, nor do I accept Archives’ submission that the presumption of regularity has some meaningful operation in these proceedings (see [81] above). Archives submitted that the presumption applied so as to produce the result that the various Directors-General who entered into arrangements with various Governors-General concerning the custody of correspondence between a Governor-General and The Queen had authority to enter into those arrangements and, moreover, it should also be presumed that each of those Directors-General held a satisfaction that those records were not the property of the Commonwealth. The presumption of regularity is discussed in cases such as Minister for Natural Resources v New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council (1987) 9 NSWLR 154 at 164, where McHugh JA said:

The natural home of the maxim is public law. Where a public official or authority purports to exercise a power or to do an act in the course of his or its duties, a presumption arises that all conditions necessary to the exercise of that power or the doing of that act have been fulfilled. Thus a person who acts in a public office is presumed to have been validly appointed to that office… R v Brewer (1942) 66 CLR 535 at 548… And a council which must form an opinion as to whether there will be any detriment upon the granting of a planning permit is presumed to have formed the opinion before granting the permit: Pearce v City of Coburg [1973] VR 583.

In the circumstances of that case, absent evidence to the contrary, McHugh JA was prepared to apply the presumption of regularity to prove that the secretary of the Western Lands Commission, who executed the grant of a permissive occupancy of land under the Crown Land Consolidation Act 1913 (NSW), had been duly delegated to do so by the Minister acting under s 17A of that Act. (Para. 122).

The presumption has been considered in other cases where the issue has arisen as to whether it can be presumed that a decision-maker, including a delegate, has been properly appointed and made a valid decision notwithstanding the absence of formal evidence of the person’s appointment (see, for example, Ray v Superannuation Complaints Tribunal [2004] FCA 1120; 138 FCR 548 per Goldberg J). (Para. 123).

I accept that the presumption of regularity has a potentially wider operation in public law. For example, in Industrial Equity Ltd v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation [1990] HCA 46; 170 CLR 649, Gaudron J made the following observations at [22] and [23] in the context of a claim in a judicial review challenge that notices issued by the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation under what was then s 264 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 (Cth) had been issued for an improper purpose (footnotes omitted):

22. It was put on behalf of the respondents that the onus of establishing that a decision was made for an improper purpose lies on an applicant for judicial review and that in the present cases that onus had not been discharged. In particular, it was put that, in determining whether the onus had been discharged, a court should proceed by application of the presumption, embodied in the Latin expression omnia praesumuntur rite et solemniter esse acta, that all things have been done correctly and solemnly. To the extent that presumptions are usefully brought to bear where reasons are provided for decisions the subject of an application for an order of review under the ADJR Act, it may be that the relevant presumption is that embodied in the Latin expression omnia praesumuntur legitime facta donec probetur in contrarium. That presumption, which applies to official acts, is that all necessary conditions and formalities have been satisfied until the contrary is proved. See Jowitt’s Dictionary of English Law, 2nd ed. (1977), at p 1283.

23. The ADJR Act does not make express provision as to the onus of proof in respect of grounds of review. In Brunetto v. Collector of Customs, it was said by Toohey J., in relation to s.5(1)(c) of that Act, that “it is incumbent on the applicant to demonstrate lack of jurisdiction”. Given that there is nothing in the ADJR Act to displace the general rule that it is for an applicant to establish his or her case, the statement in Brunetto is undoubtedly correct, both as to the ground there under consideration and as to the other grounds of review provided by that Act. More particularly and bearing directly on the present cases, there is nothing in the ADJR Act to displace the common law rule that a person impeaching the exercise of a power on the basis of improper purpose bears the onus of establishing that issue. See, for example, as to the common law rule, Municipal Council of Sydney v. Campbell. And, where the subject matter of a decision falls squarely within the terms of a statutory provision, then, in the absence of evidence establishing improper purpose or evidence displacing all possible permitted purposes, it must be accepted, simply because of the absence of such evidence, that the decision was made for a purpose for which such decisions might properly be made. It is only if the purpose attending the decision must be ascertained by inference from other facts that a presumption of regularity has a role to play. An improper purpose will not lightly be inferred and, by application of a presumption of regularity, will only be inferred if the evidence cannot be reconciled with the proper exercise of the power. See Reg. v. Inland Revenue Commissioners; Ex parte Rossminster per Lord Diplock at p 1013. (Para. 124).

Although Gaudron J was in dissent, I respectfully consider that her Honour’s observations represent the law. (Para. 125).

As mentioned above, however, I do not consider that the presumption of regularity assists in resolving the issues in dispute in these proceedings. The applicant did not dispute that the various Directors-General were duly appointed and would enter into valid arrangements for the purposes of s 6(2) of the Act. Moreover, the issue of whether or not correspondence the subject of such an arrangement was properly viewed by the Director-General as not being the property of the Commonwealth (or the property of a Commonwealth institution) falls to be determined by the Court applying appropriate principles of statutory construction relating to the Act. This task is not constrained by the presumption of regularity. It is difficult to see how the presumption of regularity applies in the particular circumstances here so as to establish the Director-General’s satisfaction or state of mind that AA1984/609 was not “a Commonwealth record” as contended by Archives, when there was no statutorily-based archives legislation in place in August 1978. (Para. 126).

Fifthly, I do not consider that Archives’ construction of the Act should be rejected because, on the applicant’s submission, this construction means that the documents comprising AA1984/609 remain the property of Sir John Kerr forever and could, for example, be retrieved and then destroyed or otherwise disposed of by, for example, Ms Bashford. As noted above, the documents constituting M4513 were provided to Archives in June 1998 by Sir John’s eldest daughter, Ms Gabrielle Kibble. Subsequently, Ms Bashford (who is Sir John’s stepdaughter and executrix to Sir John’s widow, Anne Dorothy Kerr), signed various instruments of deposit with the Archives relating to M4513. The applicant submitted that this demonstrated that there was potential for AA1984/609 to be retrieved from Archives and destroyed, or otherwise disposed of, irrespective of the clear national interest in those documents. (Para. 127)

There are several difficulties with that submission. First, in her affidavit dated 9 March 2017, Ms Bashford made clear that when she deposited some of Sir John’s papers with Archives on 29 March 2004, it was not her intention or understanding that her instrument of deposit applied to private correspondence passing between Sir John and Buckingham Palace. Secondly, as Mr Whitlam QC acknowledged, insofar as the documents comprising AA1984/609 are concerned, it could be assumed that, by 29 March 2004, Sir John’s estate had been fully administered (noting that Sir John died on 24 March 1991 and Lady Kerr died on 16 September 1997). Thirdly, the scenario painted by Mr Whitlam QC failed to take into account The Queen’s own interest in the disposal of the documents comprising AA1984/609. Accordingly, I do not consider that this scenario stands in the way of accepting Archives’ construction as correct. (Para. 128)

Sixthly, I do not accept the applicant’s submission (as outlined in [59] above) that an inference should be drawn that Sir John considered that he could not withdraw AA1984/609 from Archives, in contrast with his retrieval of 11 cartons of other papers which he had lodged with Archives. There is no evidence to indicate that any of the 11 cartons included correspondence of the character of the documents constituting AA1984/609. Indeed, an inference might be drawn that Sir John was content to have AA1984/609 remain in the custody of Archives because of the special arrangements regarding access to them, as reflected in the correspondence summarised above. (Para. 129).

For these reasons, the second question, insofar as it relates to whether any of the records constituting AA1984/609 are the property of the Commonwealth, should be answered “no”. (Para. 130).

As mentioned above, the resolution of the second question assists with resolving the first question, to which I now return. (Para. 131).

As is evident from the analysis of the second question, historically and conventionally, a distinction has been drawn between correspondence between a Governor-General and The Queen arising from the performance of the duties and functions of the office of Governor-General and correspondence between the Governor-General and other persons arising from the performance of those duties and functions. The distinction is clearly drawn in Mr Smith’s letter dated 20 May 1980 to Sir John (see Para. 20). The sui generis nature of correspondence between The Queen and a Vice-Regal representative is not, however, confined to Sir John himself. It is reflected in the evidence summarised above relating to the arrangements made by other Governors-General in relation such correspondence, including Lord Casey, Sir Paul Hasluck, Sir Zelman Cowen and Sir Ninian Stephen. (Para. 132).

In my respectful view, it is both unwise and unnecessary to seek in these proceedings to exhaustively define what papers or records of a Governor-General are “Commonwealth records” on the basis that they are Commonwealth property. In light of the assumption that all the records in AA1984/609 comprise correspondence between Sir John Kerr acting in his capacity as Governor-General and The Queen (and/or Her Majesty’s Private Secretary), and it is those records alone which are the subject of the applicant’s relevant request for access under the Act, it is sufficient to determine that, for the reasons given above, those records are not “Commonwealth records”, as found by Archives. (Para. 133).

As noted above, the alternative way in which the applicant contends that the documents comprising AA1984/609 are “Commonwealth records” is because they are the property of a Commonwealth institution, being the official establishment of the Governor-General. I will now address that alternative case, which also overlaps to an extent with the terms of the second question.

(c) In the alternative to question (b), did Archives exceed its jurisdiction by reason that AA1984/609 did not contain “Commonwealth records” because it was not the property of the official establishment of the Governor-General? (Para. 134).

In substance, the alternative issue raised by the applicant is whether the records comprising AA1984/609 are Commonwealth records because they are the property of a Commonwealth institution, namely the official establishment of the Governor-General. For the following reasons, I consider that this issue should also be answered in the negative, for the purposes of both this question and the second question. (Para. 135).

First, the word “property” should be given the same meaning when juxtaposed with the concept of “the official establishment of the Governor-General” as it has when juxtaposed with the concept of “the Commonwealth”. Accordingly, for the reasons given at [102] to [106] above, the reference to “property of” picks up the concept of ownership as ordinarily understood under the general law. Secondly, it is notable that the definition of “Commonwealth institution” in s 3(1) of the Act refers to the concept of “the official establishment of the Governor-General”, as opposed to the “Governor-General” or even “the office of the Governor-General”. As noted above, the phrase “the official establishment of the Governor-General”, which is undefined, appears to be unique to this Act. (Para. 136)

The task is to construe those words. The relevant principles of statutory construction are conveniently reflected in the following passage from the recent judgement of Kiefel CJ, Nettle and Gordon JJ in SZTAL v Minister for Immigration and Border Protection [2017] HCA 34; 91 ALJR 936 (SZTAL) at [14] (footnotes omitted):

The starting point for the ascertainment of the meaning of a statutory provision is the text of the statute whilst, at the same time, regard is had to its context and purpose. Context should be regarded at this first stage and not at some later stage and it should be regarded in its widest sense. This is not to deny the importance of the natural and ordinary meaning of a word, namely how it is ordinarily understood in discourse, to the process of construction. Considerations of context and purpose simply recognise that, understood in its statutory, historical or other context, some other meaning of a word may be suggested, and so too, if its ordinary meaning is not consistent with the statutory purpose, that meaning must be rejected. (Para. 137).

It is significant that, in contrast with all the other “Commonwealth institutions” specified in s 3(1), the only one which has a qualification to it is that relating to “the official establishment of the Governor-General”. All the rest refer to the particular institution as a whole and without qualification, e.g. “the Executive Council”, “the Senate” and “a Department”. This strongly suggests that the qualification is intended not to encompass the broader institution which is reflected in the concept of “the Governor-General”. (Para. 138).

Justice Griffiths accepted “Archives’ submission that the qualification “official establishment” refers to persons who assist and support the Governor-General’s performance of official duties, namely the Official Secretary and his or her staff. The history of the position of Official Secretary is outlined in [66] above, noting also that the non-statutory position of Official Secretary to the Governor-General existed for decades prior to the amendments passed in 1984 and 1999. The effect of s 6 of the Governor-General Act is to create the statutory office of Official Secretary to the Governor-General and s 6(2) provides that the Official Secretary, together with the staff employed under s 13 (who then become members of the Governor-General’s staff) constitute “the Office of Official Secretary to the Governor-General”. The function of that Office is “to assist the Governor-General” (s 6(3)). (Para. 139).

“The effect of this construction is that the Governor-General himself or herself is not relevantly a “Commonwealth institution” or “the Commonwealth” itself. In my view, this outcome is supported not only by the text of the Act, but also by contextual considerations. Those considerations include the legislative history to the Act, although some care needs to be taken in this regard because, as noted above, that legislative history may not reveal a consistent approach to the question of the extent to which archives legislation should apply to the Governor-General’s records. The first Bill, the Archives Bill 1977, proposed that a different approach be taken to the records of a Governor-General and his Office, and records of the executive government. This is reflected, for example, in Prime Minister Fraser’s letter dated 18 October 1977 (see Para. 14) and Senator Durack’s reference to special provision having been made for the records of, inter alia, the Governor-General (see [30] above). (Para. 140).

It appears that a different view was taken in the Archives Bill 1981. The opposition moved an amendment to subject all records of the Governor-General to the open access provisions, but this Bill was never passed (see Paras.33,34). (Para. 141).

Justice Griffiths did “not consider that it is appropriate to construe the Act as passed by reference to the then opposition’s proposed amendment to an earlier Archives Bill. The Act plainly draws a distinction between the records of the official establishment of the Governor-General and the Governor-General himself or herself. In my view, the intention was to have the provisions of the Act, dealing with such matters as the open access period, apply to records of the official establishment of the Governor-General, but to leave to any particular Governor-General the option of placing his or her private or personal records with Archives under arrangements pursuant to s 6(2). To the extent that any such records were also “Commonwealth records” as defined in s 3(1), s 6(3) was inserted to ensure that the provisions relating to “Commonwealth records” applied to such documents even though they happened to have been included in personal papers deposited with Archives under a s 6(2) arrangement. (Para. 142).

Justice Griffiths did “not accept the applicant’s submission that the Act should be construed by reference to what Senator Evans said in his Second Reading Speech, when he referred to the legislation not applying to the Governor-General’s “private or personal records” and that this is a very limited category of documents, such as Christmas and birthday cards, bank statements etc. That approach fails to take account of the fact that there has generally been an acute appreciation of the special character of correspondence between the Governor-General and The Queen, an appreciation which was undoubtedly heightened by the events leading up to the dismissal of Prime Minister Whitlam on 11 November 1975. That appreciation is reflected not only in Prime Minister Fraser’s letter dated 18 October 1977 (see Para. 14), but also in the Director-General’s letter dated 18 November 1977 (see Para. 15).” (Para. 143).

Finally, Justice Griffiths said, “in my view, Kline provides additional support for this construction. Of course, Kline did not raise the proper construction of the Act, but rather the proper construction of the companion Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) (the FOI Act). Moreover, there are clear differences between the FOI Act and the Act when it comes to dealing with documents or records relating to the Governor-General. Most notably, the Governor-General is not a “prescribed authority” for the purposes of the FOI Act. Under s 6A of the FOI Act there is a right of access under the FOI Act to a document of the Official Secretary where “the document relates to matters of an administrative nature”. (Para. 144).

Without losing sight of those important textual differences between the FOI Act and the Act, it seems to me that some of the observations of the High Court plurality in Kline provide broad guidance in resolving of some of the matters in dispute between the parties concerning the Act and its application to certain records of the Governor-General. (Para. 145).

First, the plurality in Kline (French CJ, Crennan, Kiefel and Bell JJ) stated at [33] that a matter of “considerable contextual significance” in resolving the issues there concerning access under the FOI Act is the fact that the Governor-General is not subject to the operation of that legislation. This was because that office did not fall within the definition of an “agency” or “prescribed authority”. The High Court also drew attention to the fact that neither the Parliament nor Justices of the High Court were subject to that legislation. Their Honours observed at [33] that:

… certain individuals, including the Governor-General, who hold independent offices pursuant to the Australian Constitution or a federal enactment, requiring the impartial discharge of the powers and functions of such office, are not subject to the operation of the FOI Act.

Similarly, the Governor-General is not subject to the operation of Act, however, it does apply to the official establishment of the Governor-General (as to which see further below). (Para. 146).

Secondly, matters of “textual significance” which were emphasised by the plurality in Kline include the fact that certain provisions of the FOI Act (namely ss 6A(1), 5(1) and (6)) reveal “a plain intention to constrain the extent to which the FOI Act pursues its purposes and objects against persons (or entities) providing administrative support to individuals who hold independent offices and are not subject to the operation of the FOI Act” (at [36]). The same may be said in respect of the Act and the distinction which is drawn there between, for example, the office of Governor-General and the “official establishment of the Governor-General”. (Para. 147).

Thirdly, the plurality noted at [37] that the FOI Act did not pursue its objects at any cost, but rather, struck a balance between exposing some government processes and activities to increased public participation and scrutiny while exempting other government processes and activities in order to secure a competing or conflicting public interest in non-disclosure. Similar observations may be made in respect of the Act (Para. 148).

Fourthly, the plurality noted at [38] that the position of the Governor-General “calls for the exercise of a multiplicity of powers and functions, many (but not all) of which are undertaken in public, and some (but few) of which involve making decisions other than on the advice of a Minister or the Executive Council”. These observations are equally applicable here. (Para. 149).

Fifthly, at [39], the plurality described the Governor-General’s responsibility for the administration of the Order of Australia as “a sui generis role” which required “full and frank assistance to the Governor-General from the Council for the Order”. In turn, the Council required full and frank assistance from the Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General. The same may be said in respect of the unique role of the Governor-General in providing personal briefings to The Queen, which briefings are made by the Governor-General without reference to, or advice from, the government. (Para. 150).

Sixthly, consistently with the exclusion of the Governor-General from the operation of the FOI Act, the plurality concluded that the class of documents which are not “of an administrative nature” related to the discharge of the Governor-General’s “substantive powers and functions”, as opposed to “matters of an administrative nature”, which connoted documents which concern the management and administration of office resources (at [41]). Similar implications might be drawn from the fact that the Act focuses on the records of the “official establishment of the Governor-General” as opposed to the position of Governor-General itself. (Para. 151).

Seventhly, it is appropriate to say something briefly concerning the phrase “administrative records” in the context of records of the official establishment of the Governor-General. As noted above, this phrase is not used in the Act although a similar phrase appears in the FOI Act, as discussed in Kline. The phrase does appear, however, in a document titled “Access Examination Manual” which is published by Archives (November 2014) for the guidance of its staff in making access decisions under the Act. At page 149, under the heading “Personal and private correspondence between the Governor-General and the Palace”, the Manual states:

The Archives Act brings the records of the official establishment of the Governor-General under its coverage. Records of the official establishment are essentially the records of the Office of the Governor-General. These administrative records are treated in the same way as other Commonwealth records subject to the Archives Act.

Personal and private correspondence from the Governor-General to the Monarch is not covered by the Archives Act. (Para. 152)

It is significant that there is no reference in Archives’ letter dated 31 March 2016 (see Para. 7), in which brief reasons were given for the decision to refuse access, to the issue whether the documents constituting AA1984/609 are “administrative records”. (Para. 153)

The applicant submitted that it should be inferred from the reasons given by Archives for denying access to the documents constituting M4153 that Archives reasoned that the only records of the Governor-General that are brought under the Act are administrative records of the official establishment of the Governor-General. It was further contended that this same reasoning was employed in denying access to AA1984/609 because, in the letter dated 10 May 2016, it was stated that this bundle of documents was not a “Commonwealth record” and is not subject to the access provisions under the Act “for the same reasons as Record M4153”. (Para. 154).

In my respectful view, the applicant’s submissions on this matter are based on a false premise. There is nothing in either statement of reasons to suggest that Archives viewed the characterisation of records as being “administrative records of the official establishment of the Governor-General” as relevant to its decision on access. I do not accept the applicant’s submission that it should be inferred that Archives applied the wrong test in its reasons for refusing access to AA1984/609. (Para. 155).

For these reasons, Justice Griffiths did not “accept that Archives exceeded its jurisdiction in determining that the records constituting AA1984/609 are not the property of the official establishment of the Governor-General. The third question should be answered in the negative.” (Para. 156)

Finally, on 16 March 2018, Griffith J. concluded:

“For these reasons, the originating application filed on 20 October 2016 should be dismissed. The parties were agreed that, in these circumstances, there should be no order as to costs.” (Para. 157).

Continued Saturday – Medieval combat for ‘the Palace letters’ (part 6)

Previous instalment – Medieval combat for ‘the Palace letters’ (part 4)

Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some seventy years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reached at George.venturini@bigpond.com.au.

 

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