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Monday, 14 September 2009
Page: 9471

Mr PERRETT (8:11 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Freedom of Information (Removal of Conclusive Certificates and Other Measures) Bill 2008. Here in Australia we enjoy a very healthy democracy. It has endured since Federation without any civil wars or major crises in terms of democracy. That is leaving aside Western Australia’s late entry to the Federation—I think Western Australia also considered departing in the 1930s—and every now and again we hear from North Queensland that they would like to depart or at least form a separate state. We will also forget about 11 November 1975 and that attack on democracy by Sir John Kerr.

Leaving aside those things, Australia is in fact one of the five longest standing continuous democracies in the world. When citizens head to the polls, governments come and go without a shot being fired. It is not the bullet or the ballot, as Malcolm X talked about in one of his famous speeches; in Australia it is just the ballot for all. We have universal suffrage and no blood is shed when governments come and go, although there are a few tears from departing members of parliament. Basically, it is a very healthy democracy. We should be proud of it and we should strive to protect it and uphold it.

The recent elections in Afghanistan give us pause when asking what democracy is about. It was a great achievement for a desperate country, but also what a tragedy it has been—people risking life and limb to vote, and I mean literally risking limb. I heard media reports that the Taliban had threatened that people who had ink on their fingers—the ink used to mark the fact that they had voted—would then lose those fingers. That is a strong contrast with Australia, where if you do not vote you receive a fine. Maybe if we severed the fingers of people who did not vote we might get even closer to 100 per cent attendance on polling day! I do not think that we will go down that road. It now seems that it will be months before the result of the election in Afghanistan is known, as accusations of fraud, vote rigging and many other shenanigans are investigated and, eventually, resolved.

In contrast, I turn to Australia: obviously, we can be very proud of our very healthy democracy in Australia. It is a democracy on display in this House, where schoolchildren can visit and normally do not hear any swear words or see any untoward behaviour and where members of the public can come and watch democracy in action. It makes for a very healthy exchange of ideas. A healthy democracy also relies a lot on journalists—and I turn to an empty press gallery—as well as other individuals and community groups, who must be able to access government information. A healthy democracy relies on our government being transparent, open and accountable, always, to the people. Without this transparency even democracy can breed secrecy and corruption.

Looking back to my darker days, under the Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland, this was unfortunately the reality. There was no culture of transparency—or even of democracy given that we had a gerrymander in certain parts of Queensland—and this bred secrecy and, eventually, corruption. Thankfully, a few good men and women had the courage to stand up against this atmosphere—resulting in the Fitzgerald inquiry. I thank the foresight of some of the government ministers of the day for signing off on that inquiry. I am not sure they knew what they were signing off on but it was certainly a courageous decision. The Fitzgerald inquiry shone a blowtorch on the Bjelke-Petersen government and since then Queensland has thrived as a progressive, open and accountable democracy. Undoubtedly there is definitely more work to be done, but I certainly have faith in one of my local state members, a lady by the name of Anna Bligh, the Premier of Queensland, and in the steps she has taken to ensure that the Queensland government remains accountable, transparent, progressive and open.

Government cover-up and secrecy also breeds cynicism in the community, and, frankly, the last thing we as politicians need is more cynicism about politics. I am not sure where our ranking currently is compared to lawyers and used car salesmen, but I know that we always hover around the bottom.

Mr Byrne —Right down at the bottom.

Mr PERRETT —Down at the bottom? I will take that interjection. Unfortunately it is always around the bottom. So we need to do what we can to restore faith in the democratic process and in politicians.

Mr Gray —I’m higher than you, though!

Mr PERRETT —As a former lawyer and union official, and I have worked in the mining industry, I am not sure where that places me. It would not be at the top, although I was a teacher for a long time. As I said, we have to work hard if we want to protect the integrity of our democracy. To paraphrase a US patriot from another century, the price of democracy is eternal vigilance. That is why the Rudd government made an election commitment to restore trust and integrity to our political system. As well as bringing greater accountability to the area of political donations and gifts, the Rudd government is also improving laws concerning freedom of information. We are doing this because we want to make it easier for all people, including the media, to access information and promote greater openness and transparency in government.

The bill before the House repeals the power under the Freedom of Information Act and the Archives Act to issue conclusive certificates. These certificates are issued to support exemptions to refuse access to documents. They can be used by a minister to refuse access to documents, and it is the kind of system that promotes secrecy, which is not what good government is about. Unfortunately this was the system we inherited, but it is not the system that the Rudd government wants to keep. Instead, all decisions to claim exemptions will be subject to a review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Obviously this is much fairer. We are not just relying on a whim or a capricious minister. Instead, there will have to be a defendable decision. Further, where conclusive certificates have been issued to protect documents previously, for example by former Liberal and Labor governments, these will be revoked when a request for access to those documents is received. Old applications will not automatically be revisited. However, an applicant who has had access refused can now make a new request. It does not mean access will be granted automatically as there may still be very valid reasons for refusing access in the first place. But refusal cannot just be at the whim of a minister. The reasons, obviously, have to be defendable.

This bill also contains safeguards to ensure that sensitive information remains protected. For example, access may be refused where a document falls within an exemption category such as information which would affect personal privacy or damage national security, defence or international relations. I think every sane and reasonable person would understand and appreciate that there is some information which rightly remains in confidence, and certainly matters of security and personal privacy should be treated as such. In fact, this bill contains a specific measure to exempt from FOI any document that has originated with, or has been received from, an intelligence agency. This bill represents just the beginning of the Rudd government’s efforts to transform government culture from one of secrecy to pro-disclosure, to openness and to transparency—all of those good things that make democracies healthy. I look forward to debating broader reforms to FOI in the near future. What we are talking about today heralds a new era for Australian government as the bill removes one unnecessary roadblock to accessing information. I thank the Special Minister of State and his predecessor for their work on this bill and I commend it to the House.