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Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Page: 3131

Mr PERRETT (5:49 PM) —I thank the member for Herbert for those kind words at the start of his speech and for his contribution. In a spirit of good democracy and open and accountable government, I rise to voice my strong support for the Information Commissioner Bill 2009 and Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2009. Australian democracy, like all democracy, relies on government being transparent to our people and institutions like the media to hold us accountable. Without this vital transparency, even historical and substantial democracies can breed secrecy and corruption. Without daylight, good government festers. We are lucky to have a history of continuous democracy. Nearly every country around the world has had blights on their democratic processes. We can look at the fascism that has arisen in Europe, the coups d’etat of Africa and the revolutions of South America, and even the United States has had civil wars, McCarthyism and other blights on its democratic processes. In Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s poem Terra Australis, he says of Australia:

We are the final children of the earth

Whom knowledge has not scarred—

not ‘scared’ but ‘scarred’. Looking back to my darker days under the Bjelke-Petersen government, as mentioned by the member for Herbert, this was the reality for Queenslanders. It was not just in the police service; it also infected the democratic process and the elected officials. Thankfully, a few good men and women on both sides of politics had the courage to stand against corruption. Since the Fitzgerald inquiry in 1989 Queensland has thrived under progressive, open and accountable governments, and, as the member for Herbert mentioned, more can be done.

In July last year, 20 years on from the Fitzgerald report, Tony Fitzgerald gave a lecture at the Inaugural Griffith University Tony Fitzgerald Lecture. He stressed that a lot more could be done. I am going to take you to some of the comments he made. Before I do, I particularly want to commend some of those people involved—not only AJ Brown at Griffith University but people from 20 years earlier, such as Mike Ahern, a National Party minister and later Premier. I commend Mike Ahern for his courage and commitment to good government. He let the Fitzgerald inquiry take place. Mike Ahern is well known as a fundamentally decent man. Consequently, the Queensland that I grew up in completely changed. We have wonderful police officers now that are able to shine—people like Commissioner Bob Atkinson, who leads the police service in Queensland. He is surely one of the most honourable men I have ever met, an inspiration to all young police officers and young Queenslanders.

In his lecture last year, at the Inaugural Tony Fitzgerald Lecture, Tony Fitzgerald said that every generation has a duty to historical truth. He warned us in that lecture that, tacitly at least, Queenslanders were encouraged to forget the repression and corruption which had occurred and the social upheaval that had been involved in eradicating those injustices. Younger Queenslanders know little of that era, the Bjelke-Petersen era, and are largely ignorant of the possibility that history might be repeated. It is a salutary warning. He said that ethics are always tested by incumbency. As a Queenslander in the Commonwealth parliament, I look to what has happened in my Queensland at the state government level and some of the tests that are put in front of elected officials.

The last point from the Fitzgerald lecture that I will make is the following quote:

Unfortunately, cynical, short-sighted political attitudes adopted for the benefit of particular politicians and their parties commonly have adverse consequences for the general community.

Those sentiments from Tony Fitzgerald, while particularly pointed, have a particular relevance for the Rudd government, peopled as it is by so many Queenslanders. That has informed the legislation that is before the House. Government cover-up and secrecy breed cynicism in the community, and obviously the last thing that we need is more cynicism about politics. We have to work hard to protect the integrity of our democracy. It is an often used quote, but 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, not only in the area of political donations and gifts but also by improving laws concerning freedom of information. We have already removed the power of ministers to issue conclusive certificates to refuse access to certain documents through FOI. Instead, all decisions to claim exemptions will be subject to a review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The bills before the House represent the biggest change to FOI since it was introduced way back in 1982, 29 years ago. That was back when Malcolm Fraser was the Prime Minister, back when Malcolm Fraser was a liberal with a capital ‘l’ rather than the liberal with a small ‘l’ that he seems to be now. To take you back—and I know that you are too young to remember this, Deputy Speaker Bird—Eye of the Tiger was No. 1 for about six weeks and Channel 9’s Today Show had its very first airing back in 1982, and it is still going strong. Chariots of Fire had won the Oscar for best picture and Michael Jackson’s Thriller had just been released. That contextualises the time in which FOI came about. We need to revisit the motives behind that legislation.

Through the bills before the chamber, we are further reforming the FOI Act to ensure that the right of access to documents is only limited where a stronger public interest lies in withholding access to those documents. Specifically, the public interest test states:

The agency or Minister must give the person access to the document if it is conditionally exempt at a particular time unless (in the circumstances) access to the document at that time would, on balance be contrary to the public interest.

This legislation also lists the factors which must not be taken into account in deciding the public interest test. These include whether: access to the document could embarrass the Commonwealth, the document could be misinterpreted or misunderstood, the author of the document is of high seniority within the agency and the document could result in confusion or unnecessary debate. Some of the factors which would favour disclosure under the act include where the document would: inform debate on a matter of public importance; promote effective oversight of public expenditure, which is always important; and allow a person to access his or her own personal information.

As well as providing greater freedom of access to requested documents, the legislation heralds a new era of proactive disclosure. There is a term that people probably will not be rushing to have tattooed on their shoulders—‘proactive disclosure’ is probably not as catchy as ‘detailed programmatic specificity’, but it is an important term. Australian government agencies will have new obligations to proactively publish information, including: details of statutory appointments, information an agency routinely gives access to in response to requests under part 3 of FOI, information that is routinely provided to the parliament and certain operational information about an agency’s functions or powers in making decisions affecting members of the public.

While the overall intent of these bills is to provide greater access to government information, it does include two necessary and completely understandable exclusions relating to intelligence information. Intelligence agencies are already wholly excluded from the FOI Act. However, under this legislation extracts or summaries from intelligence agency documents such as ministerial briefings will also be excluded. Nevertheless, the Department of Defence ministers and agencies will be excluded only for information relating to the collection, reporting or analysis of operational intelligence. There is a general appreciation throughout the community that there is some government information that, for the sake of Australia’s security and safety, is better off under lock and key.

Next, fees for lodging FOI applications will also be abolished. Applicants will not pay for any charges for accessing their own personal information. Journalists and not-for-profit groups will not pay for the first five hours of decision making and all other applications will be charged after the first hour of decision making. This will ensure that as many people as possible can access information at the lowest possible cost. This legislation also brings forward the open access period for most records under the Archives Act from 30 years to 20 years and for cabinet notebooks from 50 years to 30 years. I look forward to 2040.

The Information Commissioner Bill 2009 will establish the Office of the Information Commissioner. This new Commonwealth agency will be headed by a new statutory officer called the Time Lord—sorry; just fooling with Doctor Who fans! The officer will be called the Information Commissioner. The commissioner will be responsible for all the functions and powers under the FOI Act and the Privacy Act, bringing these together under the one office for the first time. The Privacy Commissioner and the new FOI Commissioner will support the Information Commissioner. They will be responsible for: issuing guidelines on the administration of the FOI Act, because anybody who has ever been tangled up in red tape knows that the devil is always in the detail; investigating government agency compliance with the FOI Act; reporting on compliance with and operation of the FOI Act; administrating the training of staff; and reviewing decisions by agencies and ministers who refuse access to documents. This will include a new two-step review process. The first review will be conducted by the Information Commissioner. If not resolved, a second review will be done by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

As I said, these bills implement the biggest reform to FOI since it was introduced nearly 30 years ago. We are doing this because we want to make it easier for people to access information and to promote greater openness and transparency in government. For governments, freedom of information is a bit like going to the dentist. It might be a little bit painful, but you know that you are better off for it in the long run. We know that our democracy will be better for these changes. Unfortunately, under the coalition some people’s experience in trying to gain access to documents through freedom of information was a little bit like pulling teeth. We in the Rudd government believe that our achievements and our shortcomings should be on the record for all to see so that people can make an informed decision about our administration. We also believe that open government is better government. The singer Paul Kelly said, ‘I was born in a luck country and every day I hear the warning bells.’ This legislation before the chamber will help us all to hear the bells long before they toll for democracy. I commend the bills to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Clare) adjourned.

Sitting suspended from 6.02 pm to 7.30 pm