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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12303


Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (17:57): This government has rarely seen a piece of information that it does not want to hide. Of course, if the government thinks distributing that information is in its interests, it is quite happy to leak it or shout it from the rooftops. But if the government thinks information is potentially damaging to it, it goes to great lengths to conceal it. We have seen that with its approach to dealing with refugees who come here; we have seen a minister who is quite happy to selectively leak certain information, often in a misleading way. However, when it comes to finding out what is being done in our name under so-called Operation Sovereign Borders, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection routinely comes in here and tells us that it is an on-water matter and he cannot comment—as if boats could somehow be somewhere else. He comes in here and says, 'I cannot tell you what is going on, even though it is being done in your name and with your money.'

This government went to an election saying that any project over $100 million has to have a cost-benefit analysis, and yet they put in $1.5 billion for stage 1 of EastWest Link without a published cost-benefit analysis and $1.5 billion for stage 2 before anyone even knew what stage 2 was. So billions of dollars are going into it, and just coincidentally it is helping the Victorian government during an election period by helping them get back to surplus; nonetheless, billions of dollars of taxpayers' money is going to a project for which the government will not release the cost-benefit analysis.

Then of course we have this Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill—a bill that looks at transparency in the operations of government and says, 'Let us remove some of the offices that are charged with campaigning for greater openness and transparency within the operations of government.' Generally, we should always err on the side of openness when it comes to freedom of information, but we should especially do so with this government. We should be especially sceptical of a government that says, 'We are doing this in the name of removing red tape'—because one person's red tape is another person's protection. When it comes to freedom of information, it is the public that is being protected. The public is being protected from the making of bad decisions by ministers and by governments. That is why it is absolutely crucial that we continue to campaign for expansion of freedom of information laws in this country, not their restriction.

The government has a catch-all explanation for any kind of reform that it wants to do, which is that it is removing complexity and removing red tape. In this instance it has said it is doing that because of the complexity associated with a two-tiered system—that is, ministers make the decisions and someone oversees them and there is someone potentially to go to and then separate to that is a system of tribunals and courts when you can have a review. It is very clear what the review of this legislation and the operation of the commissioner has stated. The 2013 review by Dr Hawke concluded that this office:

… has been a very valuable and positive development in oversight and promotion of the FOI Act.

It went on to say that yes, it has been there for only a short period of time and there are some who might say that this is another layer in the system, but it is a layer of transparency and a layer of driving change within government about how government thinks about information and releasing it. That is why the review went on to say:

The current system of multi-tiered review has been in operation for two and a half years—

not a long time—

At this stage there is insufficient evidence to make a decision on whether this is the most effective or efficient model for reviewing FOI decisions, particularly in relation to the two levels of external merits review. The Review considers this issue warrants further examination and recommends that the two-tier external review model be re-examined as part of the comprehensive review recommended in Chapter 1.

We have not had that. We have not had the government come say, 'We have had a look at the whole system and there are some things that need to be tweaked.' We have just had the government say, 'Here is an extra layer of scrutiny, transparency and accountability on us, so what can we do to get rid of it?' In effect, what they are doing is demolishing a system that has not had a chance to prove itself but that the reviews we have had so far have said is taking positive steps towards openness and transparency.

What we did not hear in the minister's second reading speech was that the abolition of the office is going to remove the statutory monitor of compliance with the scheme. This is very significant. This is a seismic shift in how government decision makers think about the openness of their information. This is not something that ought to have been new to the Australian decision-making system. Back in 1995 the Australian Law Reform Commission recommended that we take action on this front. It took 15 years for the government to act. I commend the previous government for at least acting. Having taken that step that has been called for since 1995 and having had now a couple of years of operation of this, which is generally receiving positive comments, with the caveat that it should be given a bit more time to let it prove itself, the government is now taking us back to the situation before anyone took any steps at all. We are going to have a gap in our system and there will now not be an independent officer charged with driving that kind of accountability and transparency within the government. Similarly—and this was also not referred to—we are going to now not have an officer charged with that provision of strategic advice to the government on the broader questions of information management.

To that extent you can see that this is not about addressing real issues in the system. It is not about addressing technical questions that have arisen during the brief operation of a system that may have had some flaws and may have introduced some level of complexity. Some might say it needs some tweaking. If that is the case then have a proper review of it and come back with some suggestions to make the system work better. Do not abolish it completely. That is the direction that this government is going.

I will conclude my brief remarks here, but we will have more to say about this when the bill reaches the other place. If ever there were a government that you should not take on its word—'Just trust us and it will be all right; just let us have a bit more power, a bit more secrecy and a bit less responsibility to the public'—it is this one. We have been seeing that this week in other debates in this place and in the other place. We should be shining more light on the processes that governments make decisions by. For those reasons the Greens will not be supporting this bill.