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Wednesday, 3 December 1986
Page: 3276


Senator VIGOR(4.25) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the paper.

This is at least the second year running that only a handful of copies of the Freedom of Information Act annual report have been available when the report was tabled. I believe this is a reliable indicator of how senior elements within the Government and the Public Service would like things to be when it comes to revealing information. This Government says that it is committed to open government. Indeed, it seems that its policy is that the fewer who find out what is going on the better.

Page 1 of the report has adjusted figures for the cost of freedom of information legislation in the previous two years. The indefensible 88 per cent on-costs figure has been added to all freedom of information labour costs in previous years. Last year that figure was reduced to 60 per cent, which seems much more reasonable. In one stroke this has removed $5.3m in costs ascribed to FOI. That is probably a sign of how agencies record their time and effort in these areas. The table of basic statistics shows that the average cost per request has fallen from $779 in 1983-84 to $496 in 1984 and to $430 in 1985-86. Obviously, this is one of the areas in which inflation is not having an effect. Maybe the Public Service is becoming more efficient, and I congratulate it on this if this is so. Average staff hours per request have fallen by nearly half over this period while the number of requests has doubled, to 36,512. The report makes this comment in summary:

The table suggests an overall picture of an Act having settled into operation with improved efficiency, stabilised costs, fewer external appeals and a steadying flow of requests.

Normally, such improvements are cause for congratulations. With this Government they are usually the prelude to drastic wrecking action, as we have seen with the independent information bodies, such as the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs and the Advisory Council for Inter-Government Relations both of which the Government has recently torpedoed. Sure enough, there are ominous portents in the Attorney-General's foreword. Mr Bowen complains that the all-up cost of producing an annual report is $700,000. He says:

It is not clear that such continuing expense can be justified.

He goes on further:

The Government will therefore be considering the need for continuation of these annual reports and, if continued, the appropriate form and content.

He then suggests that the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs should bear this in mind when it reports to the Senate on the first three years of the FOI legislation.

The Government has already introduced fees for decision making time. In fact, this has been high on the Treasury's agenda. Now the knives seem to be out for reporting standards, especially when people are wondering how much of the cost of FOI goes into working out how to deny information-freedom from information rather than freedom of information-or into the pro- cess of internal review, review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or even further court procedures. The report says that, of 535 applications for internal review, 208, or 39 per cent, met with some sort of success. On 17 occasions agencies conceded a case more or less on the doorstep of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. At least the Attorney-General's Department is now co-ordinating AAT and further court matters so that maverick agencies will not be able to continue to waste resources as some did before.

I believe that it is extremely important to get the Department of Defence to get its act together as it denied information in the Cobar land grab. We could not have detected its lying in that area if it had not been for FOI. Maybe that is why it is against freedom of information. The freedom of information section in the Labor Party's new policy says that there will be regular tabling in parliament of full information on the operation of government and semi-government agencies. Obviously, the way is being prepared for the abandonment of that plank of its policy in the near future. I believe that this is another nail in the coffin of open government.