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Tuesday, 23 March 2004
Page: 26916

Ms ROXON (3:40 PM) —This matter of public importance debate provides a rare opportunity for us to discuss an issue which is fundamental to the way that we run government. It could not have had a better lead-in than yesterday's censure motion, which dealt with the way that this government has treated the Australian Federal Police Commissioner. That matter was debated at length yesterday, as people in this House know, when the Leader of the Opposition clearly pointed out the attack and the purpose of the attack by the government, by the Prime Minister, by the Attorney—who is in the House now—and by other ministers upon Mr Mick Keelty, the Federal Police Commissioner.

Today I want to make the point that that action was not isolated—that this government actually has form on the way that it deals with public servants and the way that it controls information that is provided to the public. This is an opportunity for us to ask: where are we now? How does this government deal with the information it provides to the public and the way that they can then make an appropriate decision at the next election? Where could we be if this government took seriously the issue of accountability, the issue of open government and, importantly, the use of the Freedom of Information Act?

The government have been trying to control debate and information since the day they were elected in 1996. We see it across all sorts of issues. We see it most recently, obviously, with the example I have already used, in national security. We see the government wanting to tell the public what is and is not in its interests, without letting anybody else contribute who has a legitimate view and a public role that allows them to make that view known. They want to control, to stand over the shoulder of the police commissioner, but they want to do this in all other areas as well.

I am pleased that it seems that the Attorney is going to be speaking in this debate, because everyone on this side of the House could reel off some of the form that the government have, and they would certainly need more than the fingers on one hand to count the examples. There was the way that the government controlled information in the `children overboard' affair and the way that they argued that it was in our interests to participate in the war in Iraq because of the need to get rid of those weapons of mass destruction, but we see them doing it on far more domestic issues as well.

We see them controlling the information that is available about bulk-billing. Every member on this side of the House knows how important it is to get information about their electorate and the rates of bulk-billing in their electorate. What happens? First of all, the government refuse a request made by a major media organisation to get that material. The government say: no, it is not going to be released—they do not believe it is in the public interest. They claim all sorts of exemptions to say they do not have to release it. They get taken to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and are told they have to release it. So the minister for health puts out information on those bulk-billing rates that every member on this side of the House—and I am sure, minister, lots of members on your side of the House—was very keen to see.

Once the government were told to deliver that information, I am not sure how many people in the House realise what they did then—although obviously the member for Lalor, our spokesperson on health, knows this. The government said: `Well, if we're going to have to release this information, we're going to tell the Health Insurance Commission not to collect it anymore. So we're not going to give out bulk-billing rates per electorate on a quarterly basis anymore in the way that we used to.' `We might release it yearly,' the minister for health says, `but we'll do it for the first time'—guess when?—`after the election.'

The way that the government are prepared to control debate and information to get some advantage just shows how weak this government have become and how much confidence they have lost in being able to win the public debate with the information actually out there. The only way that this government think that they can win a public debate is if they control the information in that debate and do not let the public, the opposition or the media have all of the information available.

We have seen this happen in other critical areas as well, and there are many members on this side of the House who have been trying to pursue information about the first home owners grant and how it was paid, how many millionaires were able to claim it and all sorts of other information, but the government have used the Freedom of Information Act and they have used a technical provision—the conclusive certificate provision—so the Treasurer just signs on the dotted line and says, `I don't think that we should release this information.' There is no way of reviewing it, no way of saying whether or not it is in the public interest, and no need to argue anything to convince the public that you have made the right decision as a government in the way you have designed this scheme. Instead of facing the public criticism that there might be about the way this scheme has been administered, the Treasurer has signed on the dotted line and said, `We're not going to give you that information.'

The government have done the same thing in a matter that I think the member for Fraser and the member for Kingston have been raising, and that is the issue of bracket creep. This has been pursued by the Australian as well. The government refuse to release information. What have they done? They have used this conclusive certificate provision again. Why have they done that, Attorney? I hope that when you answer in our debate today, you will explain—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member will address her comments through the chair.

Ms ROXON —Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that he will explain why he thinks it is appropriate for the ministers to make an assessment themselves about what they will release and not have to argue whether it is in the public interest or not, not have to actually explain to all the voters who supported a particular initiative of the government whether they have delivered on that initiative or not. We just say it is not enough. We do not think that the government, in the way they are running their government, are accountable to the public. The public are awake to what the government have been doing.

It is for this reason that we have announced that we are going to change the Freedom of Information Act. The Leader of the Opposition announced last week that we are going to make some significant changes, but the No. 1 change is this: we are not going to let ministers sign a conclusive certificate and say, `You can't have this information,' if there is no reason why it is harmful for the public to have the information, if the only thing that could happen from releasing that information would be that it would cause embarrassment to the government. We do not think that is a good enough reason to protect it. We do not think that protecting the Treasurer, protecting the Minister for Foreign Affairs, protecting the Attorney-General or any other minister from embarrassment is the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act. The purpose of it is that we should have public information publicly available. The government should be able to argue that their political decisions are in the interests of the country without having to control the information that is provided.

Of course there are lots of categories of information where there are legitimate reasons that we should protect the information. No-one argues that there are not obvious reasons why national security and defence information should not be made public. No-one argues that personal information about individuals, except in very rare circumstances, should be made public. No-one argues that cabinet-in-confidence documents should not be given the protection they are given. What we on this side of the House argue is that the government can choose, by using this mechanism in the act, to cover up any mistake that the government have made. And those are the times that they have done it. They either stop collecting the information so that it cannot be requested under the Freedom of Information Act or they simply certify that it cannot be made available. They know that the conclusive certificate provisions protect them no matter what.

We do not think that that is good enough. We do not think that the government can treat the Public Service as if it were its own private think tank. The Public Service is called the Public Service for a particular reason: most of the work that it does is in the public interest. Of course it must respond to the political needs of the government in the types of projects it might work on or the research that is done, but a massive part of the work that is done by the Public Service is the gathering of all sorts of information—statistical information and a whole lot of research in, for example, the superannuation area and the intergenerational area—that should be provided to the public, the parliament and the media so that we can have a debate about whether what the government are going to do with that information is the right course for us. But the government do not do that.

The government think that the Public Service is there as their own plaything. They think it is there as a think tank that should put all of its energies into devising strategies and ideas for the government and that any basic material that is collected and should be made available can just be signed off on by any minister to say, `We won't release this, because that will somehow mean that we might have to have a debate in public about whether we are doing the right sort of thing.' Attorney, that is not good enough. It is not good enough to say in public, as this Attorney has, that the Freedom of Information Act is there for people to be able to collect information about their personal affairs. That is not the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act. That is one purpose. Its major purpose is as a tool in our democracy to protect the quality of information that we are able to have in the public domain, to improve the quality of debate that we can have and to make sure that information that is worked on and data that is collected are in the public realm, not there simply for ministers' use.

It is a really serious issue because we can see the short-term gain that the government think they can make by attacking Police Commissioner Keelty, by hiding the information about the first home owners grant and particularly by hiding the bulk-billing figures. We understand why the government want to hide these things, but the problem for the government is that the public have woken up to them. The public have woken up to the fact that they are not being given the full story, whether it is on national security, health, tax or any other issue. If the government is not giving them the story, the public now want to know why. Why are they covering up? Why aren't they prepared to actually come and talk to us and explain their decisions, explain why it is a good idea to change the Medicare system? Why don't the government want to come and explain why the bulk-billing rates are dropping in all of our seats around the country?

There is an obvious reason: it is because their policies are not working. Their policies are not working, so what the government will do, instead of actually improving their policies, instead of saying, `We need to get our health policy right; we need to take some action in the area of poverty; we need to fix up the tax scheme,' is just say: `We won't release the information and we'll just hope no-one will find out until after the next election. She'll be right. We don't actually have to have this debate.' Attorney, you would want to do more than that, I am sure, and the public expects more of us.

The reforms that Labor have announced are critical to how we think government should run. They might sound like they are a little bit airy-fairy sometimes—there are not many people in this parliament who take a very close interest in the Freedom of Information Act, but it is one of those things that underpins our democracy. It is one of the few ways that, as opposition members, we can get information from the government. It is one of the few ways that the media can get information and, at the moment, it is actually being used as a tool by this government to stop that information being released.

What we are going to do is make sure that no government—not just this government, but any government in the future—can use it as a tool to cover up their own mistakes or embarrassments. They can use it to protect legitimate information that should be protected, but they cannot have ministers signing off on anything that they think might embarrass them. We are going to amend the objects clause. We are going to say that we should have a pro-disclosure culture in the Freedom of Information Act. As I say, not everyone takes a lot of interest in the Freedom of Information Act here, but that is quite a significant change. What that means is that we accept that publicly collected information that is not working on a particular policy area or a particular project of government should be able to be made available to the public. Why is there any risk in letting out bulk-billing rates that have been collected over the last 20 years? The only risk is that the government might be embarrassed by those figures. But we should be having a debate about the politics in this House. All the material and information that is collected should be in the public realm so that we can debate it.

Secondly, we are going to strengthen the public interest test. This is something which it will be interesting to see whether the Attorney-General picks up, because he has often in this House and elsewhere pretended that the actions that he takes are in the public interest. He of all people is very ready to use the public interest as his argument to defend all sorts of actions, but we have not seen him indicate that the public interest test should be applied in this important piece of legislation that he is responsible for overseeing. I have already mentioned that we are going to abolish conclusive certificates. That will mean that ministers will not have sole discretion anymore. We do not think that they should be able to do that. We think that they should have to provide basic information that is collected for the public and come in here and explain their decisions.

Mr Crean —We want the Treasurer to fess up.

Ms ROXON —It is surprising, really, as the member for Hotham points out, that the Treasurer is not here to answer on this. He is the biggest user of the Freedom of Information Act, but he is the biggest user of it to stop information being released, not to grant it. The way the system is structured at the moment, the Attorney can pretend he has no responsibility for every other minister's use of this act. We have asked questions in Senate estimates, and the Attorney's representative and officials from the Attorney-General's Department say they have no responsibility in giving ministers advice about when they can use this or not, because they do not care. They can sign on the dotted line; it is never going to be checked. We are going to put a specific provision in the act which says that embarrassment to government should not be a reason for refusing to release information. I expect, Attorney-General, that that is one that you will particularly want to address, because you know, don't you, Attorney—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Gellibrand will address her remarks through the chair.

Ms ROXON —The Attorney knows about the sort of information that could embarrass the government. He knows that if he made the change we are suggesting he of all ministers will be embarrassed. We want him to come into this debate and say why he will not accept the recommendation of the Law Reform Commission, the Administrative Review Council and others to put this provision in the act. (Time expired)