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Thursday, 20 October 1983
Page: 1998

Mrs KELLY(11.33) —I will speak principally on the Freedom of Information Amendment Bill. Before I do so I would like to make some comment about the general consensus of agreement we now see in this chamber in relation to this freedom of information legislation. I think that consensus is very welcome. This is an issue which has been debated for a very long time in the community and also in this House. It is noteworthy to see legislation agreed to by both sides of the Parliament. So often outside this chamber we see highlighted all the disagreements that exist between Government and Opposition. I think at times it is necessary to take stock of just how much agreement there is, in fact, on the floor of this House. Probably only about 10 per cent of legislation is in contention. So often in the media and in the community generally the dissension in the Parliament is played up rather than the issues on which there is a lot of agreement. I think we as members of parliament have an obligation to pass through to the community the message that, in fact, the Parliament often achieves consensus. Some of the bitter disputes we have seen in the last couple of weeks are, I suppose, part of the parliamentary process. But also, at times, we lose sight of the real issues being debated and the consensus that exists.

The legislation before us today is a product of the experience of working with the Freedom of Information Act which was agreed to by the Parliament last year. I have been quite surprised by the little use made of the legislation. The number of requests for access to documents made under the Act is only a very small fraction of the number that was feared would be recalled by departments and authorities. As was expected, most of the requests have been for documents related to the personal affairs of the applicant and have been made to the large , client-orientated agencies, such as the Department of Social Security, the Australian Taxation Office and the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

I find it quite amazing that there has been so much debate about this legislation in the Parliament yet so little recognition in the community of an individual's rights under this legislation. So often when constituents come to see me I inform them of their rights under this Act. They have no idea at all. I think it is important that alongside legislation that deals with the rights of individuals goes an education process. I know that a lot of emphasis has been put on training officers within departments to deal with requests. But I think that the Government has an obligation also to sell the legislation in a way. I know that pamphlets are available on individual's rights. It is important that these pamphlets get out to the whole community. Particular emphasis should be put on informing members of the ethnic communities so that they also are aware of their rights.

The legislation that is before us today is really designed to provide greater access to government documents. The main features of the amendments are to allow the public, first of all, a greater right of access to what we call prior documents, to expand the jurisdiction of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and not to proceed with the establishment of a document review tribunal. I think that is a very welcome decision, because we do not want an excessively complicated appeals system. When we already have in operation the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, it makes so much more sense to have that as the body to which one can appeal. The legislation also provides for additional public interest tests for several important categories of the exemption. Again, that would act to free up this legislation, to remove purely factual documents from the Cabinet and Executive Council exemptions and to progressively reduce the time for compliance with requests from the present 60 days to 30 days by 1 December 1986. I do not think that there will be any problems with departments gearing up for that because, as has already been stated, there seems to be very little demand for documents under this legislation.

In relation to greater right of access to prior documents, no time barriers will now apply where an individual seeks access to his own records. Other records up to five years old will be brought within the Act. A document older than five years will also be subject to the Act where it can be shown that access to it is reasonably necessary to a proper understanding of another document. That all makes a lot of sense. If we are, in fact, to have freedom of information in name as well as in legislation it is important that we extend the provisions as outlined. The amendments expanding the jurisdiction of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal will give it power to review and make recommendations in respect of ministerial certificates claiming that a document is exempt from disclosure under the Act. The Government has given very careful consideration to whether it would leave all questions of access to be determined by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. It has decided that a provision for conclusive ministerial certificates should remain in the particularly sensitive areas of defence, security, international relations, Cabinet and the Executive Council and relations with the States.

I know that the honourable member for North Sydney (Mr Spender) has made some comment in relation to that. Senator Evans, the Attorney-General, has made this concession, I suppose, in the light of the experience of being in government. The honourable member for North Sydney smiles, but in fact, what we have attempted to do with this legislation is to achieve a balance between allowing greater access for individuals under the freedom of information legislation with proper appeals procedures but at the same time allowing some provision for security. But this has to be related to particular areas. The sensitive areas are defined as defence, security, international relations, Cabinet and the Executive Council and relations with the States. So it is not an all- encompassing exemption, but rather is confined to specific areas.

A new public interest test will also apply to the exemption of documents affecting the financial or property interests of the Commonwealth. Documents concerning tests, examinations, audits, the review of agency functions, the management interests of the Commonwealth and claims that a Commonwealth-State document be exempt will also have to show that the public interest requires the document not to be disclosed. This will make it more difficult for authorities to keep documents from public display. Reasons for doing so have to be outlined. The whole aim of this is to allow easier access to documents. Other changes the Government proposes to make to the Act will definitely make it easier to gain information because they will also be related to hurrying up the procedures. I think that is very important.

Before I conclude, I will make a very brief comment on the Archives Bill 1983. The provisions in this Bill highlight the necessity to ensure the personal privacy for depositors of documents and are necessary to ensure that the freedom of information legislation is compatible with the archives activities. The Bill is also necessary to preserve the public interest in regard to access to Commonwealth records held in private collections. As a person who worked in the Archives for a year, I must say that I am very pleased to see this Bill before us and the changes in the regulation of access to documents. I found that some of the rules that existed in regard to access to archives material in the early 1970s were absolutely ludicrous. The practice of having paper bags over some Cabinet documents which related only to the period of World War II when, in fact , one could get access to this Australian material very easily in the United States was a farcical arrangement. I must confess to having a look under the paper bags on the odd occasion to see what, in fact, was so secret to private eyes. It was the most ludicrous situation. There was no way in the world that these documents should have been kept secret. I can understand the need to black out names. There is no doubt that a person's privacy should be respected. But to restrict access-a situation that existed in the early 1970s-to Cabinet documents of the late 1930s was ludicrous. Therefore, I welcome this Bill before us.

Before concluding, I make one final plea. If, in fact, we are freeing access to documents, particularly documents in the archives, it is important that we act to preserve them. The Joint Committee of Public Accounts recently conducted an inquiry into the preservation of historical material. We were amazed at how little emphasis is being given to the preservation of our history. I hope that through the inquiry the Public Accounts Committee conducted, which related particularly to the Australian War Memorial, we are able to get a new awareness in the community of the need to preserve our past, particularly in regard to the care of the paper from the past. So often, if they are not treated in a particular way, the documents which are our heritage are destroyed. As well as looking at access to material, when material is to be constantly handled it is very important that we also take steps to ensure that those documents are preserved, not only for the eyes of our generation but also for generations to follow.