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Wednesday, 13 November 1985
Page: 2054

Senator DURACK(11.41) —We have just heard from Senator Gareth Evans one of the most remarkable statements that I have ever heard on freedom of information, particularly coming from Senator Evans. He made distinctions between those people whom the freedom of information legislation was designed to assist and those whom apparently it was not designed to assist. I thought that one of the fundamental principles of freedom of information was that it was designed to assist everybody in the community who wanted to obtain information from and about the Government. I have gone through some learning process in relation to freedom of information.

Senator Robert Ray —I don't believe that.

Senator DURACK —There would not be a Freedom of Information Act at all if I had not gone through a learning process. I do not think that is a very sensible interjection. The fact of the matter, and the main gravamen of the objection the Opposition has to these charges, is that it reverses a fundamental principle of freedom of information. Senator Missen is to be congratulated for bringing forward this motion to disallow these new charges, which in most cases increase by over 100 per cent the charges under the existing regulations-regulations which themselves only came into force towards the end of 1982. Despite the levels of inflation that have been continuing under this Government since then, certainly the sort of increase in charges is nowhere justified under any principles of indexation. Clearly, for reasons which Senator Missen has pointed out and which Senator Evans has admitted, they reflect a new policy by the Government in relation to charging for the provision of documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

One of the most unpleasant things about this Government is the level of hypocrisy which has been reached by so many members of it. Nothing could be more hypocritical than the double standards in relation to freedom of information which have been revealed by the leading figures of this Government when they were in opposition and now when they are in government. I reiterate what I said in response to an interjection from Senator Robert Ray-that this Freedom of Information Act was one of the many outstanding achievements, I might say, of the Fraser Government. It is one of the matters of which I am most proud that as Attorney-General I introduced this legislation into this Senate in June 1978. For good reasons, which honourable senators always have for anything they do, it did not pass this Senate until June 1981. It was no fault of mine, nor of the Government of the day, that having been introduced in June 1978, it was three more years before the Senate passed the Bill. I acknowledge that the Bill was improved over that period through the efforts of Senator Missen and Senator Puplick, who are taking part in this debate-Senator Missen has already spoken-and also Senator Evans.

Senator Peter Baume —Do you mean Senator Gareth Evans?

Senator DURACK —Senator Gareth Evans. He was a member of the committee which spent two years improving the Bill. As Attorney-General, I acknowledged that and we made many amendments to the Bill to give effect to the report of the Senate committee, including recommendations about charging and about the policy that the Government, the departments or the agencies, or whatever we like to call them, should have in processing applications; namely, as Senator Missen has already said, that there should be a policy of assisting people and giving as much information as can be given, and doing it inexpensively, because, as we know, there are many ways of skinning a cat.

We do not have to have provisions in the Bill to deny people information; we can simply put prohibitive charges on people before they can obtain information. That is exactly what this Government is now doing in relation to freedom of information. It is a great principle which so many members of the Government, when they were in opposition, espoused. There was no greater proponent of it than Senator Gareth Evans, who has just spoken in this debate on behalf of the Government-the former Attorney-General and former shadow Attorney-General who made so many noble pronouncements about freedom of information when he was in opposition. But there is one thing which I will say for Senator Evans but which I cannot say for his leader, Senator Button, who has just joined us and who may take part in the debate: At least Senator Evans is frank about these double standards. In April 1981, when Senator Evans was in Oppposition, he said:

. . . one of the recurring themes in the whole history of freedom of information around the world is the way in which, for obvious reasons, it tends to be espoused as a concept rather more passionately by oppositions out of office than by governments sitting in office.

He was very perceptive about his own colleagues. But the reverse has proved to be true. When we were in government we were very much more passionate and enthusiastic about freedom of information. We brought in the legislation and we got it on the statute book; but now that the then Opposition is in government it is trying to throttle this excellent piece of legislation, and the benefits it has conferred on so many Australians and will increasingly confer on Australians because more and more Australians are becoming aware of its benefits and are resorting to it. If the Senate does the right thing by disallowing the regulations that the Government has introduced, more and more Australians will enjoy the steadily increasing benefits of this important piece of legislation.

I was talking earlier about hypocrisy. I have mentioned how well Senator Evans summed up the predisposition to that element by members of the present Government. Senator Walsh, the Minister for Finance, started a campaign about this matter earlier this year. That does not surprise us. He was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald of 15 March as having said:

Whether the Government should continue to provide a near costless, (to the user) research service for journalists and retired politicians is open to doubt.

That is a pretty snide comment about the freedom of information legislation and those who use it, is it not? He suggests that it is journalists and retired politicians who use it. Then we had the comments of the Treasurer (Mr Keating), in the days when he was still the world's greatest Treasurer. He has been supplanted in that by others and obviously has been clearly supplanted because of the failing economy over which he presides. He said in May 1985:

The Government has been increasingly concerned at the resources devoted to the provision of material under the freedom of information legislation.

That campaign from two heavyweights of the Government clearly got under way earlier this year and-surprise, surprise-new regulations were introduced on 13 June 1985 by no less a person than the Deputy Prime Minister, who currently is also the Attorney-General, Mr Lionel Bowen.

Senator Haines —But not a reformist in any way, shape or form.

Senator DURACK —Well, Mr Bowen is trying to convince us that he is, will be or has been a great reforming Attorney-General.

Senator Robert Ray —Try comparing him with you and your record.

Senator DURACK —I will be very happy to have my record and his compared any day and any time, and Senator Ray can be the arbiter. I will accept even Senator Ray as the arbiter on that matter; it would be so easy to win. Mr Bowen's views on freedom of information have already been quoted by Senator Missen. He made the same pious statements about freedom of information and its importance, but as soon as his colleagues, the Treasurer and the Minister for Finance, cracked the whip he introduced regulations which took effect from 1 July this year, designed to choke off large numbers of Australians who have the right and otherwise would exercise the right under this freedom of information legislation but cannot, of course, afford the horrific and, in many cases, uncertain costs that they would incur. Senator Lewis is coming into the chamber at the moment. He can tell us what it might cost, and what it cost him, to get a simple document or documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Probably nobody in this chamber is better qualified than Senator Lewis to give an example of that.

I think it has already been mentioned by interjection that Senator Evans was a member of the Senate committee which spent two years examining the original Bill I introduced and which, as I said, made many recommendations to improve the legislation, many of which were accepted by the Government of the day. That committee's report contained a couple of major recommendations on charging which I would like to read. One recommendation says:

Charges for the search and retrieval of information should be fixed on a single set hourly rate basis, with provision for the agency to waive or reduce any such charge if it deems it appropriate in the circumstances.

We can compare that with what the Government is now doing. There are a number of recommendations on this matter, but the only other one I wish to quote, which is highly relevant to the present situation, is the following:

(a) Normally charges levied under the Bill should not be required to be paid until an affirmative access decision has been made;

(b) Agencies should be entitled to require, where the anticipated fee chargeable exceeds $25, an advance deposit of 25% of the anticipated fee . . .

Senator Puplick —That was a recommendation that Senator Evans made.

Senator DURACK —Senator Puplick has already established by interjection, and again reminds me, that these were the recommendations of Senator Evans-on his own admission-when he was shadow Attorney-General, I think. He was certainly the then Opposition spokesman on these matters. What a record of hypocrisy we have here. Not only Senator Evanse but also Mr Bowen and maybe Senator Button-I do not know whether he had anything to say about this--

Senator Button —Don't throw me in too.

Senator DURACK —I think he did have something to say about freedom of information. Actually, I have not taken the trouble to find out because I did not think Senator Button was interested enough to be in here. Senator Button certainly was a strong supporter of these matters when in opposition. No doubt he is now an enthusiastic supporter of the present change of heart of his leading colleagues. The Opposition is very pleased indeed to support this most worthwhile and important motion by Senator Missen to disallow the regulations. We congratulate him for taking that initiative.