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The Guardian - AU

Barnaby Joyce’s drought envoy texts not ‘documents of a minister’, prime minister’s office claims

Deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce
The prime ministers’ office has refused to release any messages Barnaby Joyce says were reports on his work. Photograph: Steven Saphore/AAP

The prime minister’s office has blocked the release of text messages that comprised Barnaby Joyce’s reports to Scott Morrison in his time as drought envoy, claiming the texts are not documents of a minister despite Joyce having staff and travel expenses paid for by taxpayers while in the role.

In April, the office of the Australian information commissioner issued two rulings for two-year-old freedom of information requests for the text messages, ordering the prime minister’s office to process the requests. The PMO had initially argued that processing the requests would take too long and would be an unreasonable diversion of resources.

For nine months between 2018 and 2019, while Joyce was on the backbench and before he returned to the deputy prime ministership, he served as a drought envoy, visiting and reporting back on drought-affected communities, accruing $675,000 in total expenses in that time, including the costs for two staff to assist Joyce and his normal work as a backbencher.

After criticism from Labor that no public report on his work was produced, Joyce said he had sent reports via text message.

“If you say a report is a written segment to the prime minister … then they definitely went to him, I definitely sent them, I sent them by SMS to him and they were read,” Joyce told the ABC in September 2019.

In a decision provided to the applicants today, just days out from the federal election, the prime minister’s senior adviser, John Harris, has ruled the text messages are not the document of a minister and refused the requests.

“Your purported request relates to documents that, if they existed, would not fall within the meaning of ‘an official document of a minister’ as they would not relate to the affairs of an agency or of a department of state.”

No further explanation has been provided.

During his time as envoy, Joyce made four trips to drought-ravaged Queensland, with about a week spent on the ground. The first was a day trip to Longreach, Bedourie and St George, for which a private charter cost more than $15,000. The second was a chartered day trip to Charleville costing $5,600 for a delivery of hay bales by the rapid relief team. The third was an overnight trip to Gympie, also by charter, costing $5,300, while the fourth was an overnight trip to Rockhampton in March 2019.

Joyce made two trips to Tasmania as part of his duties, a two-day trip in March 2019, and a three-day trip in October 2018.

He also made two brief trips to regional Victoria in March 2019, and visited Hay in New South Wales with the local MP, Sussan Ley, in April.

At the time, Joyce defended his reports to the PMO in a Facebook video, saying he provided “quite detailed” feedback, and at one point read out letters he had received from the prime minister in response to his work.

“Thank you for your letters; your appraisal drawn from your on-the-ground experience and local contact with farmers and drought-affected communities plays an important part in forming our national drought response,” he recited.

It is the second decision of its kind from the PMO in recent weeks, after Harris also refused a request for text messages between Morrison and prominent QAnon conspiracy theory supporter, Tim Stewart, on the basis that any such texts which might exist would not be “an official document of a minister” as they would not relate to the affairs of an agency or a department of state.