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Wednesday, 6 June 1984
Page: 2635

Senator MISSEN(3.40) —On behalf of Senator Tate, the Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, and on behalf of the Committee, I present a report on the Freedom of Information Act 1982 annual report on the operation of the act for the period 1 December 1982 to 30 June 1983 and move that the report be printed.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator MISSEN —by leave-I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I will take a little time to give the Senate some information in regard to this report. I explain first how it comes about that the Committee is presenting a report on an annual report which has been put down in this Parliament. It is with a purpose which I hope will be fulfilled, namely that there will be some debate on this matter. As we all know, the Freedom of Information Act which came into operation less than two years ago is of considerable importance to this Parliament and one in which the Senate had a very considerable part to play. It has likewise had a considerable part to play in the amendment of the Act since that time. Unfortunately, after the Act had been operating for seven months, to 30 June 1983, that annual report was put down in the Parliament I think two days before we rose for the Christmas recess. There was no opportunity whatsoever for any members of the Senate to comment in any way on the report.

The 1982 annual report on the Freedom of Information Act is a substantial one. I commend the Attorney-General and his staff, as does the Committee in its report, on the excellence of its coverage and the fact that it provides a great deal of useful information for members of the Parliament and the public. The Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee has taken the opportunity to consider that report which, as I said, the Parliament did not do and to report certain matters in relation to it. It is a valuable report because it indicates what I think the Attorney-General calls 'the quiet introduction of freedom of information'. That is a feature which has its good and bad sides. It is somewhat quiet probably because of the lack of knowledge that people have of its facilities and their ability to use it. That lack of usage is to be found not only in the public generally, but also among members of parliament and the media , who, I believe, do not use the opportunity to obtain detailed information from government sources that the Act now provides. The first recommendation the Committee made in its report on the annual report was that:

The Government should proceed with the recommendations of the Attorney-General to ensure that there is a better knowledge of the Freedom of Information Act, so that the public and public-interest bodies may make full use of the valuable amount of information which is now available for their use.

I think that is important. Only small use has been made of the Act. As a result, only 45 per cent of the staff demanded were required in the first year. That might be good from the point of view of the economy of the Government, but it also indicates a lack of knowledge and a surprising lack of usage which varied considerably between departments. Thus there is a necessity to encourage better knowledge of the Act and its services. The second recommendation of the Committee was that:

The Government should facilitate the provision of information about departments required to be supplied under the Act and ensure that the Freedom of Information Handbook is produced and widely distributed at an early date.

Some very substantial material has been produced. No doubt the shelves of honourable senators are littered with documents from departments showing what documents are in the possession of those departments. I have a horrible suspicion that most of those documents have not been opened by honourable senators and that we are not fully aware of all the comments. One of my colleagues looks shocked at that suggestion, but I think it is very near the truth. The production of a Freedom of Information Handbook is something of urgency. The type of information given to members of the public should be simply set out so that they can use the facilities of the Act. That is a matter which I think should have urgent attention. The third recommendation made by the Committee is that:

The Attorney-General's Department should carefully monitor the differences appearing in the usage made by agencies of exceptions and exemptions and the varying times taken to meet requests.

The various appendices of the report are very detailed and very interesting because they indicate that some departments have a comparatively considerable number of inquiries under the Act. The Department of Social Security is one such department. Those departments that have a considerable public content and public connection are used much more than others. I think that three departments accounted for something like 59 per cent of usage in that seven-month period. But other departments were hardly used at all.

This recommendation also mentioned the use of exceptions and exemptions. Likewise, we tried to analyse those figures in the Senate Committee report. They indicate very interesting divergences between the use of the various means of avoiding disclosure of government information. I take as an example the ability which a department has to provide only part of a document where some of it is exempt; it makes those excisions and then produces the document. Some departments more often than others use the exception by arguing that production of part of a document would lead to a confusing document or that it is not possible to discriminate between that part which is exempt and that which is not exempt. It is very important that the Attorney-General's Department should scrutinise very carefully this diverse use of exemptions to see whether some departments are overusing them and whether other departments are showing a much more ready acceptance of the idea of freedom of information.

When the United States introduced its Acts in 1966 it found in the first few years very differing attitudes. Some departments of government were co-operative and made things available to the public; others were unco-operative. It is very important that in the early stage of the application of the Freedom of Information Act in this country we should not see bad habits developing such that some departments show excessive use of some exemptions and exceptions. This should be a matter of scrutiny by the Attorney-General's Department.

The fourth recommendation put forward by the Committee states:

The Attorney-General's Department should be vigilant in monitoring exceptions and exemptions to ensure that technical defects in applications are not used to frustrate access to information.

We give examples in our report of cases we know. One example was of a department waiting for 59 or 60 days before it told the applicant that the application could not be granted because it also required his wife's signature. It must be ensured that departments do not use technical defects to deny people access to government information.

I believe that the report therefore is a very worthwhile production by the Attorney-General's Department. We know that after three years of use of freedom of information there is to be a review by a Senate committee. It is, I think, equally important that in the years before that there should be a close scrutiny by the committee which has responsibility in this regard; that is the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, to which the annual report is automatically referred. It should keep a close watch on these developments. We should not wait until the end of three years suddenly to find that there are defects requiring attention. I hope that each year we will consider the report and make recommendations. But I say to the Attorney-General that overall this report is of very considerable importance and should be examined very closely. It should be reported on and discussed in the media because in it are seeds of some problems but at the same time areas where further development would be valuable. It is with those remarks that I introduce the motion. I hope it will lead to further debate in this chamber. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.