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Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Page: 3219

Ms PARKE (10:49 AM) —I rise to support the Information Commissioner Bill 2009 and the Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2009, which together bring in the second stage of the government’s reform measures in this area and continue this government’s achievements in greater transparency and integrity in the structures and operation of our Australian democracy. In short, the measures contained in this legislation will make official government records available sooner, they will remove the cost burdens that previously existed in lodging freedom of information requests, they will make the FOI consideration process clearer and also subject to better oversight by the newly established Australian Office of the Information Commissioner, and they will extend the scope of the FOI Act.

The changes being made in these bills may not generate major headlines, but they will institute reforms that substantially improve the openness of government and its agencies and substantially improve the range and detail of information available to the public. In practical terms, these changes will include: a freedom of information request process that is simpler, more responsive, cheaper and less restrictive, with a single formulation of the public interest test and fewer exemptions from that test; an improved day-in, day-out operational approach to freedom of information by government agencies, with a requirement that such agencies provide certain information as a matter of course and in accordance with a publicly available, agency-by-agency freedom of information plan; and a greatly improved system of FOI supervision and oversight through the creation of the Office of the Information Commissioner, which will itself include three important information officers, namely, the Australian Information Commissioner, the FOI Commissioner, and the Privacy Commissioner;

The creation of an FOI Commissioner was one of the recommendations of the Open government report, which was the result of the review undertaken by the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Administrative Review Council in 1996. Indeed, a number of the recommendations in that report are now, finally, introduced through this legislation, after the previous government failed to take action on them for 11 years, only to then initiate a second, narrower review of FOI laws in 2007. Those who suggest that this government is all review and no action might reflect on the Howard government’s record on FOI reform. Just like the national bioregional marine planning process, which was agreed to by the Commonwealth and the states in 1998 but then lay dormant for nine years, these important, long-recommended FOI reforms have had to wait for this government to come in to see the light of day.

With these changes, the inner working of government and of the public service, including those contracted and even subcontracted to provide services on behalf of the Commonwealth, will be made available more quickly, more easily and with greater process oversight to Australian citizens and to organisations, including media organisations, whose free and unfettered access to such key information is an essential part of the scrutiny that government should always be open to and an essential part of a well-informed and engaged electorate.

The votes of Australian citizens and their aggregate influence within our electoral system are cast on the basis of the information that is available to inform those votes. The quality of the information in the public sphere directly impacts upon the quality of the electoral outcome. For instance, Australian citizens should never have had to go to the polls in the mistaken belief that asylum seekers threw their children overboard. Every step we take to ensure that government and government agencies are open to the proper scrutiny of the public and of the media is both a step towards a higher quality Australian democracy and a step away from the dangers that are inherent in politically expedient secrecy.

The changes to the FOI Act not only improve the right of access to information sought by the public, which is perhaps the most commonly understood purpose of FOI laws, but also put in place new obligations on Australian government agencies to ensure that they proactively publish relevant information. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner will be responsible for the compliance of government agencies in this regard, and agencies will be required to publish approved plans that indicate what information is to be made available to the public. Agencies will further be required to publish the details of an officer who will be the point of contact for public inquiries about information that can be released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Exemptions that exist under the act to allow certain kinds of information to be withheld will be streamlined, with a revised single formulation of the public interest test and a requirement that any refusal upon the application of that test include release of the public interest factors assessed in reaching the decision to refuse access. Previously this requirement applied only to the internal working documents exemption. Some important exemptions, such as the national economy exemption, will now be conditional exemptions. That is, they will be subject to the public interest test, when previously they were strict exemptions. This is another example of a shift towards openness, of an emphasis on disclosure rather than on secrecy. Such a shift is also evident in the new approach to the cabinet exemption. As it stood, the FOI exemption covered all documents submitted to cabinet or that are proposed to be submitted. The amended exemption is limited to those documents prepared for the dominant purpose of submission to cabinet. It will now not apply as a matter of course to documents that were attached to an exempt document and the scope of the cabinet exemption has been clarified by the provision of specific details as to what the exemption covers.

The reforms in this legislation build on what was achieved through the Freedom of Information (Removal of Conclusive Certificates and Other Measures) Act 2009, which commenced operation in October last year and had the effect of repealing the power to issue conclusive certificates. That means that all FOI refusals on the grounds of the exemptions that exist in the FOI Act and the Archives Act are subject to full independent external merits review. This legislation continues the stream of reforms introduced by this government with a view to strengthening Australian democracy and increasing the fairness and openness of our electoral and political system. This is one of the clearest points of difference between this Labor government and its predecessor. It bears repeating that the previous government massively increased the threshold for political donations that did not need to be disclosed, massively increased the taxpayer funded printing and communications allowance, used conclusive certificates as a means of avoiding freedom of information scrutiny and amended the Electoral Act to close off the rolls in a way that disenfranchised thousands of Australian voters.

By contrast, this government has delivered on its promise to address the issue of political donations and the undemocratic changes made by the Howard government to the donations and enrolment provisions of the Electoral Act, though unfortunately our efforts in this regard have at times been scandalously obstructed. We have delivered on our promise to establish a register of lobbyists and a ministerial code of conduct and to reduce the public funding of printing and distribution by members and senators and to abolish the use of conclusive certificates. Through the amendments contained in the legislation before us today, this government is reforming the system of access to information about government and its agencies in the interest of greater access, greater transparency and greater oversight. This legislation delivers categorically on the commitments made prior to the 2007 election in the Labor policy document titled Government information: restoring trust and integrity in government information.

Taken altogether, these things I have mentioned are structural improvements to the way in which our democracy works. They are done because this Labor government has a principled commitment to seeing these improvements made real. We have undertaken these achievements as a first-term government on a relatively small margin. We have implemented these reforms even though they are changes that in some cases increase the scrutiny and pressure that government can be subjected to and in other cases reduce the value of incumbency. They are certainly not changes for which the government has received or sought any great credit in the media or, I dare say, in the course of dinner table conversations in households around the country. But, like changes that increase the quality of the air we breathe, these are reforms that deal with the essential substance of Australian democracy, and they will deliver benefits that go right across the breadth and depth of government and public administration.

Finally, I congratulate the Cabinet Secretary and Special Minister of State for these bills and the important reforms they contain. I welcome this further instalment of the Rudd Labor government’s program of strengthening Australia’s democracy.