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Freedom of information as a tool for empowerment: enabling protection and achievement of other rights: address to the UNESCO world press freedom day conference, Brisbane.

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Freedom of Information as a tool for empowerment: Enabling protection and achievement of other rights

UNESCO World Press Freedom Day Conference 2 May 2010

Welcome and acknowledgements

Good afternoon. Thank you for that introduction. It’s a pleasure to be with you today in celebration of the fundamental principle of freedom of the press. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we meet on today, the Jagera and Turrbul people. I would also like to acknowledge:

• Irina Bokova, Director-General, UNESCO • Ulla Carlsson, from Göteborg University in Sweden, and Moderator of this session. • Professor Paul Greenfield, Vice-Chancellor of

UQ for hosting the first World Press Freedom Day to be held in the Pacific region. • Fellow members of the panel. • Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It’s an honour to spend an afternoon with such distinguished and passionate advocates for open and transparent governance and the public’s right to know.


We all hold our hard-won freedom of information laws precious. Without FOI laws guaranteeing your right to access government information, your ability — as members of the press, researchers and advocates — to perform your democratic function of disseminating information and ideas to the public, would be significantly impaired.

What I’d like to do today is take the issue of freedom of information a step further. I want to go beyond the FOI laws that let you apply for and receive access to government documents — important as those laws are — and instead cast our discussion of freedom of information as a discussion of free information. By that I mean both free as in speech, and free as in gratis.

Our FOI Reforms

Australia didn’t pass its FOI Act until 1982, after 16 years of discussion sparked when President Johnson signed the US FOI Act into law in 1966.

Australia’s FOI Act was typical for that first tranche of FOI laws across the globe. It was conceived relatively narrowly, as a rigid, legally enforceable right citizens could use to access some government information. This was a big step forward for Australia.

However, the world quickly moved on. By the time this government was elected in late 2007, over 60 new FOI laws had been enacted around the world, and Australia’s laws were lagging behind world’s best practice.

Our FOI Act hadn’t been reformed since its enactment. Its exemptions were heavily used. It allowed ministers to make a blanket and unreviewable decision to refuse information by issuing what was called a ‘conclusive certificate’. Without a champion of FOI within government, the system had come to resemble an adversarial and technical legal contest between the government on the one hand, and individual citizens, the press or civil society organisations on the other.

As many of you here today will have experienced, in spite of the intent of the original regime and the object specified in the Act, the Act has been interpreted in a way that leaves much room for improvement, with a long way to go before we can honestly

say we’ve achieved open government.

This is the situation that we inherited. We set about fixing it and we’re part of the way there. We’ve already abolished conclusive certificates. The second part of reform will not be through piecemeal repair, but establishing a pro-disclosure culture across government and usher in a fundamental and irreversible shift in the way government information is handled in this country.

This government recognises that a freer flow of information can improve service delivery, policy debate and government accountability. And we understand that government information is a national resource held by the government but not belonging to it. It belongs to the people who paid for it through their taxes — the community.

Our changes to FOI will mean the system is weighted towards disclosure. The right of access to documents will be as comprehensive as possible, limited only where a stronger public interest lies in refusing access. Notably, the possibility for a document to cause public debate about policy will be considered a good reason to disclose it, not a reason to keep it concealed.

Significant changes to the administration of the Act are aimed at ensuring information can be accessed. For instance we’ll establish an Office of the Information Commissioner. The Information Commissioner will, at the highest level, be a strong advocate for disclosure within government. He or she will provide advice to government on information policy and act as a review body, hearing appeals on government decisions for free. I’m pleased to say that Professor McMillan, who spoke earlier today and is a passionate FOI advocate of many years’ standing, will be the first person to fill that role.

In recognition of the special role of the media in disseminating government information and holding governments accountable, we’re scrapping FOI application fees for everyone and making the first 5 hours of FOI decision making free for journalists as well as for non-governmental organisations.

Beside our ageing FOI laws, advocates for open government have often criticised Australia’s lack of protection for so-called whistleblowers — people who release government information to a third party such as the media out of serious concerns over corruption, misconduct, mismanagement or public safety. We’re introducing world-leading public interest disclosure legislation to ensure that public disclosure of

such concerns is protected in those circumstances where it is ultimately deemed justifiable.

Another reform that really brings Australia’s information laws back up to world’s best practice is our publication scheme. This turns the old concept of FOI — the request and (if you’re lucky) release model — on its head. When our reforms are passed each government agency will have to publish certain information, including information released under an FOI request. In addition, the publication scheme will mean that government agencies will need to decide what information they have that can and should be made available to the public, and publish it as a matter of course.

For the publication scheme to work, the information an agency publishes will need to be relevant, accurate, up to date and complete. It will also need to be accessible — it’s not good enough for information to be nominally ‘public’ but really only available filed under ‘I’ for interesting in drawer C, aisle 652, folio 19 of some dusty archival storage facility.

That is to say, information will have to be placed online in a format that’s searchable, usable and reusable, or, to use the new buzzword — mashable.

Government 2.0

This means politicians and public servants alike will have to outgrow the old mindset that the best way to protect responsible government is by keeping information about that government as confidential as possible. We’re already seeing some real progress here.

The culture around government information is already changing, here in Australia and in many corners of the globe. In large part this is due to the collaborative,

participatory tools, strategies and ways of thinking that we know as web 2.0, and to the generations for whom those tools are second nature.

This government recognises that blogs, wikis — any device that allows information not just to flow in one direction but in all directions at once — have great potential for government and society. That’s why we asked a taskforce on Government 2.0 to come up with recommendations for how the government could use web 2.0 tools to make sure our information publication scheme has wings.

We also asked the taskforce to investigate how we can use the social web to facilitate closer government engagement with the community, strengthen public administration, improve government decision making, and allow Australians to reap

the democratic, social and economic benefits that can come when government information is set free.

Our FOI reforms and our embrace of government 2.0 will help us to make the best use of the rich resource that is government information.

Let’s take the field of education as an example. For years Australian parents had been demanding access to the vast stores of information about Australia’s schools that we all knew existed. This government took that information and for the first time put it on a website in a consolidated and easily accessible format. The public

response was overwhelming — the website, known as MySchool, got 1.5 million hits on its very first morning. Parents are using that information to inform their choice of school and the community is using it to feed a vigorous national conversation about what makes for good schools and good teaching.

Meanwhile, the website for the proposed new national school curriculum presents one of the most radical consultation exercises this country has ever seen, providing an easy and direct way for any interested party to comment in detail on any point in the proposed curriculum. These processes aren’t perfect, but they’re a step in the right direction — towards a more open government and a fuller use of government information.

Let’s turn to the potential economic benefits that can come from freeing up public sector information. The government 2.0 taskforce highlighted the striking example of US weather data. Unlike in countries where the government claims copyright over weather data and charges substantial fees for it, in the US weather data is available to anyone at the cost of reproduction. In turn, a big and vibrant industry has sprung up around weather data, and it’s been estimated that for every dollar the US government invests in the data, it gets around $39 back in economic value, for example through more efficient farming and construction decisions. Other studies suggest similar patterns in areas ranging from geospatial data to traffic patterns and agriculture.1

The empowering function of information

These changes to the way public information is handled will empower citizens, industry, academia and civil society in their relationship with government.

With information out in the community, there can be more and better informed public debate about programs and policy. Government and Opposition claims can be tested and conclusions challenged. And government can be held accountable, not just on election-day, but every day of the year.

There are some thorny questions we need to work through as we incorporate the publication scheme and web 2.0 tools into the everyday business of governing. We need to build privacy protection into the system. We need make sure that those who aren’t online aren’t left behind. And we need to switch the mindset in the public

service from information control to information sharing. This year I’ll be asking agencies to identify what’s stopping them from engaging more online and to chip away at those barriers.


Journalists, researchers, advocates and the wider community have told us time and time again that the biggest problem with FOI in this country is the attitude of government agencies towards the information they collect and store. We’re working to change that public sector culture so that it’s focused on disclosure, not concealment.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, our new attitude to information — our FOI reforms, our embrace of government 2.0 and our protection of whistleblowers — will make for a lot of public debate about our policies and decisions. It will result at times in criticism and robust challenges to our conclusions. But we’re unafraid to do that in the service of creating better informed public debate, and so a stronger democracy. Thank you.


1 James Boyle, ‘Public information wants to be free,’ Financial Times (24 February 2005), quoted in Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0 p45.

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