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Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Page: 3128


Mr LINDSAY (5:33 PM) —I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker Bird, for the call—a busy day in the parliament and we are looking forward to another session of the parliament later this evening. I recognise that the members of the Left Right Think-Tank, Australia’s first think tank for young Australians, are here in parliament today for the budget. They will, of course, be interested in the bill on freedom of information that we are discussing. That certainly interests young people as well as interesting the rest of the Australian population. To the member for Isaacs: I could not agree more with your contribution. I think we will probably hear more of the same from the member for Moreton in due course—a very fine Queenslander, I might add.


Mr Perrett —Hear, hear!


Mr LINDSAY —People do not understand that there can be good friendships with those on the other side of the parliament. I remain a little bit cynical, though, I am afraid, about this particular bill and I am going to go through it and outline why I remain cynical. I will challenge the member for Isaacs over his comments about Senator Brandis and reflect on what is currently the situation within the Australian government.

I think we all agree with the purpose of the Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2009. It is to amend the FOI Act 1982 to ‘usher in a new regime for access to government information’. How could you disagree with that? It is an absolutely laudable object. The second object of the bill is to ‘promote a pro-disclosure attitude’. I hope that the bureaucracy of the government departments out there hears this loud and strong and clear, because that is what we need. This bill is intended to deliver more effective and efficient access to government information and promote a culture of disclosure across government. But let us have a look at what is happening at the moment, and I will give you a case study: the Department of Defence. Never have I seen a more paranoid department. It does not matter what you ask of the department as the answer is, ‘No, we can’t tell you.’ Their attitude goes completely against the grain of the philosophy of this bill and it has got to change.

I will give the parliament a specific example. Defence is normally considered a bipartisan operation and all of us are very mindful of the work that the members of the ADF do for our country. We are all supportive of the Defence Force. I am particularly supportive because, within Australia, I have the largest defence concentration in my electorate in Townsville with the Army at Lavarack Barracks and the Air Force at RAAF Townsville. It is a very, very significant base and Australia’s most modern base. I take a keen interest in defence. I look after the people in the Defence Force.

When issues arise in Afghanistan and the media finds something and blows it up out of all proportion and you know that what they are saying is wrong, you want to stand up for the men and women of the ADF in your electorate and you want to give the media information that is correct. So what do you do? You ring the media ops section of Defence at Russell in Canberra. There are probably 100 employees in media ops. It is called Defence public affairs as well. You say, ‘This is what the papers are saying. I know this not to be true. Give me a couple of lines that I can use in the media to defend the Australian Defence Force in Townsville.’ Their answer is, ‘Look, I’m sorry, we can’t talk to you.’ They know that I am not going to misuse any information and that I need information for the right reasons. I explain that carefully and the answer is no, we cannot tell you. Then they say, ‘You have to ask the minister.’ I have been down that process a number of times. What happens when you ask the minister, effectively, is that you put a request in writing to the minister’s office for information. It will take days if not weeks to get a response. And by the time it comes through the issue has long gone.

In the last instance I said to Defence public affairs, ‘You’re there to look after the public, to provide information, that is your role. Here I am. I’m a member of parliament but I’m also a member of the public and I want to stand up for the Defence Force. Give me information and give me information that won’t embarrass anybody.’ But the answer keeps coming back—no. In this particular instance when I was defending the men and women from Townsville who had been to Afghanistan and were accused of drug related issues in Afghanistan and I knew it to be wrong I said to Defence, ‘In half an hour I’ve got to front the television cameras and I’ve got to give an explanation. Give me a couple of lines. I want to support the Defence Force.’ The answer was no. I said, ‘Are you saying that you’re going to just turn me loose and I could be wrong in what I say?’ They said, ‘Yep, we can’t do anything about it.’

It is that kind of paranoia that Defence has. People want to do good things for the Defence Force and need correct information that Defence has and could give them but does not. It is that kind of culture that departments have to take notice of. It cannot go on being a secret society, particularly when we are all trying to do the right thing. It is wrong that that should happen. How can you have a Defence public affairs unit of 100 people who will not give you information? That kind of culture has to be addressed. I call on the Minister for Defence to have a look at that in relation to the object and philosophy of the bills that we are talking about tonight.

In the information commissioner bill there are three information commissioner appointments. There is the Information Commissioner, the FOI Commissioner and the Privacy Commissioner. I note that the Information Commissioner has the ultimate decision power should there be a disagreement. That is fine. The bill also gives the Information Commissioner a discrete function of advising the government on information management policy.

The Information Commissioner is to be assisted by an information advisory committee. That committee will be chaired by the Information Commissioner and will comprise senior executives from key agencies and other persons outside the government who have suitable experience or qualifications. That is a good thing. The advisory committee and hence the Information Commissioner’s advice to government will not be truly independent if the appointments of the advisory committee are not picked with balance in mind. That is my view. That is not in the bill, but I think it is self-explanatory. I hope that, in making appointments, the government is mindful of the need for balance.

In the freedom of information bill the member for Isaacs talked about some of the tests that will be applied to more exemption categories than is currently the case. That is a good thing. He talked about the public interest test to be added to the economy, research and personal information exceptions. I think that on both sides of the parliament we are pleased that you will no longer be able to use arguments to prevent the release of information like, for example, disclosure of documents could cause a loss of confidence in the government or cause embarrassment to the government. Well, three cheers. That is a very good step forward.

I am pleased to see the bill also gives weighting to the FOI applicant. Should there be a disagreement between the three commissioners then the FOI applicant wins. That is interesting, though, as it contradicts the philosophy that the Information Commissioner has the ultimate say over the FOI and privacy commissioners.

I would like to turn to the history of FOI in Queensland, and the member for Moreton will be interested in this as well. This is where I get a bit cynical. Back in the Fitzgerald days, around 1989, Queensland suffered a lot of corruption in the police force, and there were people like Don ‘Shady’ Lane and Brian Austin who got themselves into a bit of strife. There was a fellow called Jack Herbert—I am the member for Herbert, but there is no relation—and there were some goings-on that were looked at. The inquiry handed its report to the government in Queensland in 1989. The report said:

A Government can deliberately obscure the processes of public administration and hide or disguise its motives. If not discovered there are no constraints on the exercise of political power. The rejection of constraints is likely to add to power of the Government and its leader, and perhaps lead to an increased tendency to misuse of power.

I say hooray to that—it is dead right. In this context, from what the report said, it is easy to see the fundamental importance of proper record keeping by public servants so that the activities and decisions of government can be scrutinised by the public. Importantly, Fitzgerald saw that effective FOI laws were one of the accountability mechanisms necessary for a robust democracy, and we are recognising that in this bill in the parliament tonight.

The recent history in Queensland is fascinating because in September 2007, within days of Anna Bligh becoming the Premier, cabinet approved the terms of reference for a broad-ranging review of FOI, and the independent panel that resulted from that delivered its report in Queensland in June 2008. In answer to the question—this is a general finding—of whether FOI in Queensland had brought about a ‘major philosophical and cultural shift in the institutions of government and the democratisation of information in the last 15 years’, the review said no. I think we all suspected that.

Since that review, Queensland has gone down the track of what we are doing here in the Australian parliament tonight. The Queensland government made a commitment to provide access to information held by the government unless, on balance, it is contrary to the public interest to provide that information. The review on Queensland’s Freedom of Information Act found that a new approach was needed from the government, putting forward 141 recommendations for reform. The Queensland government then proceeded to enact those changes.

But what is the result of that? This is where, I guess, we all get cynical. A media release from the Leader of the Opposition in Queensland dated 25 November 2009 is headed ‘Accountability a joke under Bligh’—and this is what I have feared. It says:

Premier Bligh is living in a fool’s paradise if she thinks her government is setting the national agenda for accountability.

The Leader of the Opposition said:

… Premier Bligh’s claim in state parliament this morning that Queensland’s Right to Information legislation made her government more accountable was laughable. Anyone who has attempted to extract information from this government using RTI processes is confronted with bureaucratic obfuscation …

“Under Bligh’s self-flaunted legislation, departments are required to respond 25 days but are either unable or unwilling to do so.”

“The most recent request from the opposition office seeking information regarding the Bligh Labor Government’s negotiations with A1GP was met with a reciprocal request for an extension until 11 March 2010, more than three months after the designated due date.”

These are the kinds of things that, as members of parliament, on both sides, we have to be very careful about. FOI has to mean FOI. After this bill goes through the parliament, if we see what is happening in Queensland continue to happen in the Australian departments, it will be a sad day for Australia. It will be a sad day for the aspirations that the member for Isaacs articulated so well in the parliament this evening. I accept that he is genuine in what he feels, and I think that all of us would want to see these kinds of aspirations delivered on by the Australian government and by the departments and bureaucracy in the Australian government so that Australia can be a better place and the people of Australia can be better informed.

Finally, I would just like to thank Alec Zeglis, who is with us tonight, for helping me prepare this contribution to the parliament. Alec is another fine young Australian who, one day, will be one of Australia’s leaders. Well done, Alec. Thank you.