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Thursday, 20 October 1983
Page: 1999


Mr LIONEL BOWEN (Minister for Trade)(11.45) —in reply-I thank all honourable members who have participated in this debate, particularly the honourable member for North Sydney (Mr Spender), who led for the Opposition and who indicated that the Opposition supports these Bills-the Freedom of Information Amendment Bill, the Archives Bill and the Copyright Amendment Bill. I also appreciate the remarks made by the honourable member for Wentworth (Mr Coleman), the honourable member for Macarthur (Mr Hollis) and the honourable member for Canberra (Mrs Kelly). My colleague the Minister for Home Affairs and Environment (Mr Cohen) has been in the House. He is responsible for the Archives Bill but, because of the pressures of time, we will not have the benefit of further advice from him as to his delight that there are no objections to his Bill.

During the debate in the Senate on the Freedom of Information Amendment Bill Senator Missen moved an amendment which we have to refine, and we will need to go into Committee in respect of that relatively minor matter. The honourable member for North Sydney pointed to the many improvements made by the Bill, particularly the widening of access to documents, the fact that there will be no limits on access to documents relating to personal affairs, together with general access to documents which were made available as from 1 December 1977. He referred also to the ability to respond much more quickly than at present and the attempt to reduce that period of response to 30 days at some time in the future. The major amendment is that the test for access will be the overriding public interest in favour of disclosure, the exempt documents being those relating to such matters as the physical safety of officials.

It is also worthy of note that the Bill abolishes the Document Review Tribunal and transfers its functions to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The Attorney -General (Senator Gareth Evans) is on record as saying in the Senate that the freedom of information legislation, as it will exist after the passage of this amending Bill, will be a much more substantial contribution to open government than anything that has been done previously. I know there has been some argument that the Attorney-General and I had aspirations for even wider access, but that was refined by the fact that we have had legal training which gives one a wider mind in the sense that one's aspirations are often higher than one subsequently achieves. All honourable members will know that when one gets into Cabinet one seems to be surrounded by other minds which perhaps are not as flexible or as expansive. That is some defence of my colleague the Attorney-General, because I noticed that I was also singled out for mention in the Senate.

The question of conclusive certificates was mentioned in the Senate. Senator Missen moved a series of amendments designed to abolish the system of conclusive certificates and to propose other things. Those amendments were not accepted in the Senate. The Government has not abandoned the idea of phasing out the system of conclusive certificates, if possible, but we are on record as saying that it would be premature at this stage. The transfer of jurisdiction for that matter to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, together with the requirement that Ministers table reasons in the Parliament, will go some way to meeting concerns about the conclusive certificate system in the principal Act. It is thought that the question of conclusive certificates should be considered in the context of the three-year review to be conducted by the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs.

As at 30 June 1983, of 923 decisions made by agencies to refuse access, conclusive certificates were given in respect of only six. That is about 0.65 per cent. This indicates a responsible attitude on behalf of Ministers and officials in relation to the giving of certificates. I am pleased to mention that the Attorney-General's Department has given me further statistics on the number of requests reported by agencies. I will ask my friend the honourable member for North Sydney whether he objects to this document being incorporated in Hansard. It has just been handed to me. It indicates that the departments to which the greatest number of inquiries are being made are Social Security, the Taxation Office, Veterans' Affairs, and Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. It indicates that in July there were 1,249 requests to 82 agencies and in August there were 1,086 requests to 61 agencies. It is of interest to note that in Veterans' Affairs inquiries were relatively slack until Anzac Day but that in April there were 95 inquiries and in May 358 inquiries. I understand that an enthusiastic official of Veterans' Affairs who is also a returned serviceman drummed up a fair amount of business at returned servicemen's celebrations on Anzac Day so that statistics were remarkably improved. I will hand the document to my colleague opposite and, if he agrees, I will seek leave to have it incorporated in Hansard.


Mr SPEAKER —Is leave granted? Leave is granted, provided the material is within the usual guidelines.

The document read as follows-

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT 1982

Number of Requests Reported by Agencies (December 1982-June 1983)

December 733 by 59 agencies January 592 by 78 agencies February 708 by 74 agencies March 802 by 78 agencies April 670 by 83 agencies May 1,178 by 84 agencies June 986 by 84 agencies

Total 1982-1983, 5,669 (average per month, 809; full year rate, 9,708).

The majority of requests reported by agencies (over two-thirds) were directed to client-orientated agencies, for example-

December January February March April May June Department

1982 1983 1983 1983 1983 1983 1983 Total

Social Security 189 133 173 199 133 184 166 1,177 Taxation 103 104 152 179 153 267 168 1,126 Veterans' Affairs 62 63 82 107 95 358 282 1,049 Immigration and Ethnic Affairs 69 43 73 61 63 77 79 465

Other agencies receiving a significant number of requests include Defence, Australian Federal Police, Health, Home Affairs and Environment, Public Service Board and Attorney-General's.

More detailed statistics will be available in the Attorney-General's Annual Report on the FOI Act.

Number of Requests Reported by Agencies (July-August 1983)

July 1,249 by 82 agencies August 1,086 by 61 agencies

Total 1983-1984, 2,335.

The trends of the first seven months operation of FOI appear to have continued into 1983-84 but with a slight increase in activity.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the honourable member for North Sydney. The matter raised by the honourable member for Wentworth related to archives. My colleague the Minister for Home Affairs and Environment has asked me to mention the great variety of archival holdings. They include models for the Canberra design competition in 1911 and film of early aerial surveys of Australia for mapping and defence purposes. On film there are records of the Antarctic Division. There are many thousands of defence films and film relating to Cyclone Tracy. There are photographs covering a wide variety of the early history of Australia. There are voice recordings of Dame Mary Gilmore, Daisy Bates, Albert Namitjira, John Curtin, Nellie Melba and Alfred Hill, to mention just a few. There are the early Burley Griffin design drawings and drawings of nineteenth century fortifications and military equipment. There are films relating to the pioneers of aviation such as Amy Johnson and Jean Batten. There is film relating to the Cowra prisoner of war breakout and to nineteenth century naturalisation records. There are the personal papers of Lord Bruce, Sir Paul Hasluck, Mr Scullin, Mr Whitlam, Mr Fraser and Mr Curtin. There are seismic tapes, together with related papers on off-shore petroleum exploration. So, the Archives covers a wide spectrum of activity.

The honourable member for Wentworth was concerned by what appears to be a disputation over what are called ephemeral records. He queried what was going to happen to the national film collection held in the National Library. I am reminded by the Director-General of Archives, Professor Neale, that the matter has been satisfactorily adjusted in practical terms in this way: Under the Berne Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, all obligations for ephemeral records must go the official archives; that is, the Australian Archives. The National Library's film archive is part of the Library and the Library Act defines library material to include film. That term was coined and used most effectively by Library staff in the film collection, and they have built up a magnificent collection. Our international obligations have been met by the initial transfer of the ephemeral records to the Australian Archives-clause 64 of the Bill-and the film will be made available under clauses 63 and 64 with what is called the agreed best interest of all interested parties. The Archives does not seek to acquire custody of records for their own sake but wishes to have them for their proper preservation and disposition.

The question has been raised as to whether the National Library film archives should be separated from the Library or in some way made an official archive, but the Attorney-General has told the Parliament that, while the review of the problem by a committee is in progress, material lodged initially with the Archives will be lodged in turn with the National Library. He has given assurances that this will in no way foreclose the ongoing debate or the review about the proper role of the National Library film archives. If any decision arises from the review which requires an amendment to the Archives legislation, those amendments will be made. It might well be that any such decision will require amendments to other Acts, such as the Australian War Memorial Act, the Australian National Gallery Act and the Museum of Australia Act. The National Library film archives may well say that it has insufficient resources to house and care for the film. The idea will be that assistance can be given from other areas. At present, for example, the Archives has about 3,000 cans of film on behalf of the National Library. In the very near future, with the rearrangement of Archives material in the Mitchell repository in Canberra, space will become available there for use by the National Library. The review and any administrative activity will take some time. But what has been said by Professor Neale should satisfy the query by the honourable member for Wentworth. I think that answers the matters that were raised.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.