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Wednesday, 13 November 1985
Page: 2056

Senator HAINES(11.56) —The Australian Democrats will be supporting Senator Missen's motion to disallow the freedom of information charges. I must say that I have seldom heard the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Gareth Evans, sound not only so unconvincing but also so unconvinced as he did when he responded to Senator Missen's arguments. Indeed, I am sure all of us on this side of the chamber would agree that the Minister sounded somewhat less than believing in his own arguments. What he put forward among the various figures he flung at us was nothing more than rhetoric and vague statements that were, I suppose, intended to soothe us. He made statements such as the one that non-contentious material will be made freely available. However, he did not say who decides what is and what is not contentious. He said that practicability will be taken into account. However, he did not tell us who decides what is and what is not practicable. He stated that bureaucrats who wish to appeal will have to get approval from the Attorney-General's Department, but, since the Attorney-General's Department itself is not exempt from freedom of information requests, the Minister did not bother to say who would give approval if a bureaucrat from the Attorney-General's Department wished to go to appeal.

Essentially, what we have before us today is a question of principle. Senator Missen was both scholarly and erudite in his exposition of what we are all about. Essentially it boils down to this: Either we have effective freedom of information legislation, or we do not; either we have access to information through freedom of information legislation, or we do not; either individuals and organisations have a right to seek and to obtain information on themselves or on other issues, or they do not. That is what it boils down to.

To introduce, as the regulations before us today are attempting to introduce, price exclusivity is clearly obnoxious and circumvents the alleged purpose of the Freedom of Information Act. Senator Missen said the Government is attempting to bluff people out of making requests for information. I suggest to Senator Missen that it is not a matter of bluff when the Government holds the financial cards, as it is attempting to do through this regulation. It is not bluff at all.

Senator Lewis —It is bluffing with four aces.

Senator HAINES —I would not be surprised if the Government had a fifth ace somewhere up its sleeve. All of that is true notwithstanding the fact that, as Senator Evans pointed out in one of his more lucid moments this morning, there are some groups and some people who are exempt from those fees. Already, of course, we have limits imposed on access to information enshrined in the Act and in the Schedules to that Act. To add a further restriction based on a person's ability to pay-unless, of course, the search he is undertaking is in regard to his own files-is one of the worst forms of discrimination that I think we have.

Already freedom of information in Australia is hedged about with conditions, restrictions and limitations of a kind unheard of in the United States. As Senator Missen said, our Act is a mere baby in comparison with the legislation in operation in the United States. The United States has managed to come to terms with freedom of information in a way that apparently neither the Government nor the bureaucracy has managed here. In that country the only restrictions on freedom of information relate to access to defence matters, another person's file and data which could reveal private information about a third person. What is more, the charge for the information supplied is a nominal 10c to 15c a page for the document supplied. There is no deposit of which I am aware; there is no inspection fee of which I am aware; there is no administrative charge of which I am aware. There is merely a recoupment of photocopying costs. Those recoupment costs are a far cry from the $5 a page fee which is intended to be applied under these regulations.

Senator Evans said in his response to Senator Missen that of course we have to make some sort of charge for administrative costs and the time of the bureaucrats involved. I would have thought that in fact public servants were just that and seeking and providing information for the Australian public would be part of the reason they are employed. Costs should not have to be recouped in charges made to those individuals. The new regulations regarding those charges under freedom of information are in essence a total denial of this Government's stated policy and philosophy in regard to open government. We cannot have open government if we hedge it round with costs and restrictions.

The new regulations regarding charges under the freedom of information legislation facing us today also run counter to all concepts of democracy and the rights of ordinary Australians to know what is happening to them and to know what is happening to and in this country. They are anathema to everyone with even the vaguest commitment to civil liberties. They come perilously close to being elitist when access to a large amount of information is limited essentially and effectively to those wealthy enough to afford those charges.

Let us look at the changes proposed to be made under the new regulations. It is not by a matter of cents in some cases that these fees are being raised. The charge in Item 1 of Part I of the Schedule to the Freedom of Information (Charges) Regulations (Amendment) goes up from $8 to $20. That is a charge in respect of the administrative procedures involved in processing the request. The amount charged is being more than doubled. The charge under Item No. 2 in Part I increases from $12 for each hour of search to $30 an hour. The remainder of the charge increases are somewhat less than that. For example, Item No. 4 goes from $4.40 a page of transcript to $5. The amount charged under Part II increases from $6.25 to $8. In some cases there is a charge increase from $4.40 to $5. Those are not inconsiderable increases to a lot of people who have very legitimate reasons for seeking information under the Act.

Therefore, I think we have to question the rationale behind the Government's attempt to introduce draconian increases in charges. The Government is arguing in some areas that there has been an abuse of freedom of information requests by journalists and out of work politicians. Of course there will be situations in which people will abuse the system, but that is no reason at all for imposing a penalty on people who are not seeking to abuse the system.

Senator Missen —It is throwing the system out of the door.

Senator HAINES —Indeed, Senator Missen is quite correct in what he said. I remind honourable senators opposite who are complaining about the use being made of freedom of information legislation by other members of Parliament that in fact we can always put questions on notice which are just as trivial, apparently, to the Government and which are just as expensive to answer as any request under the freedom of information legislation.

Senator Sanders —We have a better chance of getting an answer under the freedom of information legislation.

Senator HAINES —Yes, I think Senator Sanders probably is correct. There may well be a better chance of getting an answer under freedom of information legislation than under questions on notice. That, of course, is a reflection on the Ministers from whom honourable members and honourable senators seek information through the procedures that apply within the Parliament. The search and retrieval fee of $30 an hour, for example, I would suggest is not what the Government says it is. It is not an economic charge for the time of a public servant or bureaucrat who is detailed to conduct the search. Instead, I would suggest that, again, it is an economic penalty which is placed upon applicants, a penalty intended to bluff them, as Senator Missen said earlier-I would prefer to use the word `force'-out of making the application in the first place. Certainly, the old regulation provided for a deposit, but that deposit was no more than a quarter of the estimated charges. The new regulation, the regulation that now would apply, provides that agencies are entitled to require applicants to pay a non-refundable deposit of not less than 50 per cent of the amount of a charge which is or may be payable for finding the document and for providing that document to the applicant. When we consider that the charges have risen as well as the cost of the deposit, we are looking at what is essentially an exponential and quite unjustifiable increase.

The facts of the matter are that the freedom of information legislation is essential to the public interest. It is essential to groups and individuals who have a right to know what is happening to them, why it is happening to them and what impact it will have on them and other groups in the community. One must realise that the legislation that we have here is defective enough without making it worse by making it prohibitively expensive. Senator Missen-it may have been Senator Durack-mentioned earlier that such people such as Ralph Nader would simply not be able to operate effectively in this country under the sort of legislation that we have here. They would not be able simply to walk into a department, ask to see the files and be given access to them. They would not be able to get pages of documents at a relatively cheap cost. As a consequence, what may be quite necessary consumer and other reformist legislation could not be brought before the Parliament. In fact, the need for it could not even be drawn to the attention of the public, much less members of parliament. So essentially we would have hide-bound people with an interest in reform. At the moment all this legislation and the attempt to increase charges does is protect governments which have something to hide and bureaucrats who are so inefficient, as Senator Missen said, that it is practically impossible to get any information out of them without long searches and expensive costs. There is no justification for these increases on fiscal or any other grounds. The Australian Democrats are pleased to support Senator Missen's disallowance motion.