The most extraordinary thing has happened.
A Freedom of Information request has revealed that on July 5, 2012, three working days before the closing date, the Department of Health and Ageing in Australia sent an email to their counterparts in London requesting an extension to the UK Government's consultation on standardised packaging of tobacco.
Ignoring the fact that they had three months' notice of the closing date, the Aussies wanted their submission to be signed off by their Minister of Health, The Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, but she was on a "short absence".
A few hours after the request was sent the Department of Health issued a statement extending the deadline for submissions by four weeks. (I wrote about it here, blissfully ignorant of the Australian Government's remarkable request.)
The full email from the Department of Health and Ageing reads:
We corresponded earlier this year just after I took over from [redacted] – I hope this email finds you well and fully engaged in the plain packaging consultation! We have been watching from a far [sic] with much interest.
My Department has coordinated a whole of government submission to the UK Consultation on Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products which we note is due on 10 July 2012. We are currently going through the clearance process for the submission at a time when several of our key Ministers are absent on leave or work related travel, during a break in the Parliamentary sitting period.
I am sure that our Minister of Health, The Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, would welcome the opportunity to personally sign off on the Submission, if at all possible. To achieve this, we will require an extension due to her short absence. Accordingly, would you or the relevant area responsible for the consultation, be willing to approve a two week extension until Tuesday 24 July? Alternatively, can you suggest a timeframe that would be acceptable?
I am most grateful for your consideration [redacted]. Please let me know if it is more appropriate for me to direct my request elsewhere.
The revelation appears today in The Times under the headline Australian plea delayed submissions on cigarettes.
Anne Milton, then Health Minister, said on July 5 that the Department of Health’s three-month consultation was to be extended until August 10 to “make sure everyone who wants to contribute can”.
That same day an Australian official in the Department of Health and Ageing wrote to the Department of Health requesting a two-week extension to the July 10 deadline so that Australia’s Minister for Health could sign off the submission.
Later that day, an email was sent by the Department of Health’s tobacco programme manager to the Australian Government, and others, explaining that the deadline had been extended.
To put this in perspective, I can't imagine there is an administration anywhere in the world that is as pro-plain packaging as the government that was the first in the world to introduce it – so what the Aussie Government wants the Aussie Government gets.
The DH (but of course!) has denied any suggestion of impropriety (ie bowing to the wishes of a foreign government). According to The Times:
A source at the department yesterday said the decision to extend the consultation had been taken before ministers were made aware of the Australian Government’s request.
This is quite possibly true. Generally I believe things happen because of cock-ups not conspiracies. Nevertheless it's a remarkable coincidence that requires further investigation.
Finally, to paraphrase Alex Ferguson, recite out loud: "Plain packaging, bloody hell!"