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Wednesday, 13 November 1985
Page: 2061


Senator VALLENTINE(12.30) —I rise to support Senator Missen's disallowance motion. I believe that the Freedom of Information Act is a misnomer if ever there was one. The principle of citizen access to information held by governments is fundamental in a true democracy and fundamental to the preservation of civil liberties. It is a generally held belief that information is power. Conversely, the withholding of information is to disempower the people. It is also generally acknowledged that citizens feel overwhelmed by bureaucratic institutions. The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act was an opportunity to change that, an opportunity for people to be involved in the decision-making processes in this country.

The Government made much of this legislation when it was introduced, heralding it as a great reform. To a degree it was an important landmark. However, never was all the information that citizens sought readily available. For example, especially in defence matters Australians have needed to get information under the United States freedom of information Act. It is indeed ironic that information denied to Australian citizens about our own national affairs is more easily accessible to citizens in the United States. In asking questions in this place about defence matters, which I believe is one of my major tasks because of the need to expose much of the secrecy surrounding defence matters and, in particular, all things nuclear, I find myself relying on information about our internal affairs coming from researchers in the United States. That is an ironic situation.

The Government is now virtually dismantling the much heralded Freedom of Information Act, which it never adequately promoted to the public, by demanding high costs and putting it out of reach of ordinary citizens and community groups. I want to give a recent example of the Freedom of Information Act helping a community group. The World Heritage Committee asked the Australian Government to provide an indicative list of sites in this country-that is, to draw up a list of possible future nominations. The Australian Government told the public that the request was only for cultural sites. Information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Wilderness Society showed that the request was for both natural and cultural sites. The Government did not give the public the full information. It was selling out our natural heritage, such as the Daintree, because it was afraid of exercising its Federal responsibilities in this area. It is vital that responsible community groups such as the Wilderness Society should continue to have reasonable access to information under the Freedom of Information Act because governments are not always honest.

As Senator Missen said, big corporations will not be disadvantaged, although they may be inconvenienced, by the exorbitant charges, but individuals and community action groups which have a right to information will be severely hampered in their quest for information, if not denied it altogether. The new costs will prove prohibitive. Information in this country is far from free. The matter of charges and the cost of the service to the Government is something of a red herring as presented by the Government. The provision of information to the citizens of Australia is a cost which a government should be prepared to bear if it believes in the principle of access to information. If the Government is so concerned about costs perhaps some of the extra income which will be generated by the recently passed Petroleum (Submerged Lands) (Cash Bidding) Amendment Bill 1985 (No. 2) could be used to offset the cost of an effective Freedom of Information Act. It would be a great shame if a Labor government were responsible for smothering the Freedom of Information Act in its infancy.