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Wednesday, 13 November 1985
Page: 2108

Senator PETER BAUME(6.07) —I follow up the remarks made by Senator Austin Lewis. The freedom of information legislation was a very important means of empowering ordinary Australians. It was also an important means of empowering members of parliament to do their job more effectively. The Public Service has been bitterly opposed to the concept and practice of freedom of information from the beginning. I remember from my time in government the resistance to the idea and to the implementation of freedom of information legislation once the threshold decision had been made. What we see now is the Labor Government caving in to pressure from its advisers and attempting in this place to remove or limit the power which lies in the hands of ordinary citizens.

The war on freedom of information has been continuing. Senator Missen set out this morning the reasons why the Freedom of Information (Charges) Regulations (Amendment) have to be disallowed. I am glad that the Senate will so do in a few moments. An administrative war has been going on as well in an attempt to prevent access to information by means of regulations which impose large charges. I might say that I have continued to make my freedom of information requests and so far have not been asked to pay any money, but I have experienced considerable obstruction from within the Public Service to providing information.

Honourable senators may be interested in hearing an account of the extent to which one statutory authority went to try to prevent us from having access to information. Earlier this year some decisions were taken in relation to Australian schools, putting non-government schools into various categories for the purposes of funding. This information was made known to the schools. I sought to obtain from the Commonwealth Schools Commission the list of the schools and the categories to which each had been allocated and some other information with regard to approvals. The information was readily available. It was information which had already been passed on from the Commonwealth Schools Commission to all the schools involved around Australia.

The Schools Commission took no action. The Act allows for, I think, a 45-day period within which an authority must respond. I would not be surprised if Senator Gareth Evans was one of the people who helped obtain that period of 45 days rather than a longer period. On the forty-fifth day, out of the goodness of our hearts we reminded the Commonwealth Schools Commission that it was running out of time. By the end of the forty-fifth day the Commonwealth Schools Commission still had not responded to that request. Being a member of parliament and having a lawyer on my staff, I did not hesitate. We went straight to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, as we were entitled to do, argued our matter before it, won, and had the Commonwealth Schools Commission give us the information, which it did reluctantly. By the way, the Commission in the interim made sure that it released the information publicly. It was not going to give me anything, as it was required to do under the Freedom of Information Act, until it had released it publicly. Clearly there is an enormous war of resistance going on within the Public Service and the bureaucracy to the principles and aims of the freedom of information legislation.

The regulations which have come before us no doubt have emanated from somewhere within the bureaucracy. They have been taken up by the Government in the name of cost saving-an entirely spurious operation because of course there is a cost in empowering ordinary people to get information. There is no evidence so far that the public is abusing that right. In any event the right to know is one which must be protected. I fully expect that the bureaucratic war of attrition will continue. I give notice that we will go back to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and to the Federal Court of Australia under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act-we will do anything-to ensure that our rights under the freedom of information legislation are secured. If we find any of the statutory authorities or departments not willing to respond as the Act provides, we will be only too happy to oblige them and test those matters in the appropriate tribunals.