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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 12493


Mr MORRISON (Cook) (11:01): I rise to speak on the Freedom of Information Amendment (Parliamentary Budget Office) Bill 2012. The Labor Party does not have a clean record when it comes to freedom of information requests. I know this in particular from my own portfolio of immigration. The Office of the Information Commissioner released earlier this month a scathing report into the immigration department's handling of FOI requests under this government's watch, indicating a culture of cover-up and interference by the government. This report exposes Labor's claim of open and transparent government as a fraud. The current Prime Minister's promise to 'let the sunshine in' is about as hollow as the promise that there would be no carbon tax under a government that she leads. The report also raises serious concern within the department about giving the minister a so-called heads-up about what information is being released before making a final decision on an FOI request. This might be how it is done in Sussex Street in New South Wales but it is not how things should operate in an executive government or before this parliament.

Mr Bradbury interjecting

Mr MORRISON: The minister at the table would know all about what happens at Sussex Street. He has been the beneficiary of this—

The SPEAKER: Order! The member for Cook—

Mr MORRISON: I was just responding to the interjections.

The SPEAKER: I was going to say to the Assistant Treasurer—

Mr MORRISON: If he wants to bring it on—

The SPEAKER: Interjections should not be responded to. I refer the member to the bill before the chair.

Mr MORRISON: Madam Speaker, the minister at the table may wish to reflect on this on his next trip to Darwin. The report raises major questions of political interference in the FOI process relating to Labor's most sensitive political issue: border protection. And the minister at the table took a keen interest in this issue when the boundaries of his own electorate somehow extended to Darwin at the 2010 election when 'the good admiral', as we know him, went up there spruik his claims. The commissioner's report also suggested that the minister for immigration and his office have tried to influence and delay the release of sensitive political information relating to Labor's border protection chaos—which continues to this day. There have been 40 boats and over 2,100 people this month—a record failure that has no equal by any government or any Prime Minister.

The SPEAKER: The member for Cook is addressing the issue of FOI in the budget office. I would ask him to return to that very important issue before the chair.

Mr MORRISON: The Information Commissioner decided to investigate the immigration department in April following many complaints of missed deadlines and suspected cover-ups, including a complaint made by the member for Mayo about the department obstructing six requests for information relating to the Inverbrackie detention facility. For each and every FOI request the member for Mayo submitted to the immigration department they missed time frames and failed to maintain contact.

When it comes to open and transparent government Labor's spin is not matched by their actions. While the coalition supports this bill in principle, we believe it needs to be thoroughly examined by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs to ensure the amendments are fair and proper. The coalition just does not trust this government when it comes to the detail or even the broad.

I turn now to the Parliamentary Budget Office. The Parliamentary Budget Office commenced operations in July this year. Its functions are to prepare election policy costings upon the request of authorised party representatives and independent members of parliament and to prepare policy costings outside of the caretaker period upon the request of individual senators and members of parliament. In addition it will initiate its own work program in anticipation of client requests and also prepare responses to budget related non-policy costing requests of individual senators and members of parliament.

The Parliamentary Budget Office is also tasked with providing formal contributions on request to relevant parliamentary committee inquiries. The Parliamentary Budget Office is an exempt agency under the FOI Act so that its services can be provided on a confidential basis. However, there is no specific exemption for documents related to Parliamentary Budget Office requests that may be held by departments and other agencies, which may therefore not be protected against release under the FOI Act. The purpose of this bill is to amend the FOI Act to provide an exemption for information held by departments and agencies that relates to a confidential request to the Parliamentary Budget Office. It also provides that an agency is not required to give information as to the existence or non-existence of a document where it is exempt under the new provisions. The successful operation of the Parliamentary Budget Office requires that its services be requested and provided on a confidential basis. The integrity of its processes would be compromised if access to requests were available via a backdoor application to non-exempt agencies.

The bill's explanatory memorandum notes that the bill protects public order by enhancing public administration. Specifically the aim of the bill is to protect the integrity of the Parliamentary Budget Office. Maintaining the integrity of the office is an integral element of policy development and public administration. Senators and members may be reluctant to request such analysis from the office in the absence of certainty that information provided in response to confidential requests will not be released under the FOI Act. The aim of this amendment is to provide this assurance. Although existing exemptions may apply to some potential FOI requests relating to Parliamentary Budget Office related documents held by agencies, it cannot be confirmed with certainty that they would apply to all such requests.

Also agencies currently do not have the option of denying or confirming the existence of a confidential Parliamentary Budget Office request. In its submission to the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee inquiry into this bill, the Parliamentary Budget Office said:

… to facilitate its role in undertaking this confidential work for senators and members the Parliamentary Budget Office is an exempt agency under the FOI Act 1982. Without this exemption the Parliamentary Budget Office's effectiveness as a source of confidential budget analyses and policy costings would be seriously compromised. The proposed amendments to the FOI Act extend this logic to also provide an exemption under the FOI Act for information held by departments and agencies that relates to a confidential request to the Parliamentary Budget Office. The Parliamentary Budget Office is heavily reliant on other departments and agencies that relate to a confidential request to the office.

The Office of the Information Commissioner said in its submission that the exemption of the Parliamentary Budget Office would not be fully effective unless there is a similar exemption under the FOI Act for documents held by other agencies that reveal the contents of confidential communications between agencies and the Parliamentary Budget Office. The Information Commissioner did raise in its submission one concern raising the bill:

We raise for consideration whether a time limitation should be placed on the operation of the Parliamentary Budget Office exemption. The policy rationale for the exemption is that senators and members of the House of Representatives should have access to independent and non-partisan budget analysis and policy costings over the entire course of the three-year electoral cycle.

The commissioner believes it is not necessary that Parliamentary Budget Office documents should retain their exempt status for 20 years. The commission said a more reasonable limitation may be that the Parliamentary Budget Office exemption continues only for a short period after a general election, perhaps one year. No other concerns have been raised at this stage of the inquiry.

As I mentioned earlier, the bill has been referred to the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee for consideration of the adequacy of the scope of the proposed exemption and of any concerns raised, including that of the Information Commissioner. The coalition supports the bill. However, we foreshadow amendments in the Senate pending the Senate committee's final report on 19 November 2012.