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Wednesday, 13 November 1985
Page: 2109

Senator MISSEN(6.12) —in reply-In closing the debate I want firstly to thank my colleagues for the support they have given my motion. I thank also for their support the Australian Democrats, Senator Vallentine and, I think I may say, Senator Harradine, who nods his head and who I know is concerned about this matter.

Senator Harradine —I have been on the receiving end of not getting information.

Senator MISSEN —Senator Harradine is one of the sufferers who have been really affected by this. It has been one of the follies of this Government to have had this amendment to the freedom of information regulations in operation for the past four months, thus enabling it to be tested and seen for what it is. I think it was a gross and foolish tactical error on the part of the Government to allow us to see what it had in mind. The Government was so keen to get the amendment going that we have been able to see it in operation. Thus Senator Lewis has been able to bring forward evidence today showing how the interests of the public are being denied.

Senator Sheil —That is not the only area either.

Senator MISSEN —No, he also reminded us of the ridiculous way he has been treated. He told us that a deposit of money must be paid before the request for information is processed and the person requesting that information is given any idea of what documents the agency holds. He certainly told us that. The fact is that this regulation represents another built in method of delay. People who have difficulty in paying the deposit know that they have the further problem of knowing that they will not get the information until long after they first sought it.

I want also to express thanks to those honourable senators opposite who have left empty the Government benches. Those empty benches are fairly expressive in themselves. Senator Gareth Evans spoke very briefly on the matter and seemed to be quite cheerful about seeing his amendment go down the drain. Nonetheless, other honourable senators opposite have by their absence demonstrated their feeling that this amendment is not a regulation worth keeping. I know from discussions with them that they feel that there should be a reconsideration of this matter. Of course, the Government has not been able to do that.

I will say one or two things about Senator Evans's surprisingly short reply. He gave us the impression that the fee collections were low. It was always known by the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, of which Senator Evans and I were members, that the provision of this information would not be a fee collecting business, that that information would be provided as cheaply and inexpensively as possible and that, in the immortal words of Mr Lionel Bowen, freedom of information went to the very heart of democracy and therefore one expected such legislation to be used by a lot of people. Senator Evans made reference to the Press release issued by Mr Lionel Bowen on 14 June. There was a certain amount of puffery in it in that it suggested that the freedom of information legislation was doing some positive things, and then came the slug and it mentioned that increasing costs would be involved.

Senator Evans forgot to mention-I am sure I did not mishear him-another main feature of the directions, which was that further publicity of the Act is to be suspended for the time being. In the first two annual reports on the Freedom of Information Act under Senator Gareth Evans as Attorney-General we had the idea set in train that we must publicise the Act more, that taxpayers must be told of the Act's existence. From a Morgan poll commissioned by the Government we learned that only 40 per cent of the people knew of the existence of freedom of information legislation and only 9.2 per cent knew how to conduct a freedom of information application. It was because of those facts that we had a publicity campaign to try to increase people's usage of freedom of information facilities. Now, of course, that has been turned right around. The Cabinet has determined that there shall not be too much knowledge. In fact, it has determined that people must be discouraged from actually exercising their rights under the Freedom of Information Act. That was one of the interesting things announced in Mr Lionel Bowen's Press statement of 14 June.

In conclusion, I remind honourable senators of one or two other things that have been said. One of these is a statement of Mr Lionel Bowen which I read in the course of my speech this morning. I think it is worth reading again. He stated:

We on the Opposition side believe that freedom of information is a basic democratic right and it lies at the very heart of the democratic system.

I will read on a little further because Mr Lionel Bowen, who was then in opposition, said in the course of debate on the relevant Bill:

If people are to make informed choices about a particular matter or policy or about who is to govern this country, then the widest possible information should be made available in order that the choices can be made in an informed manner. Withholding of information should be kept to the barest minimum. In order to protect the public interest we must always guarantee that there will be an impartial body, such as the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, that can certainly guarantee that protection.

They were fine fighting words in opposition but we have now a miserable surrender to the bureaucrats. Let me also remind honourable senators that the guilt of the Australian Labor Party goes much further. I will read from an article prepared by Professor Gordon Reid, who is now the Governor of Western Australia, called `The Changing Political Framework'. He stated:

You will recall the heady rhetoric of the policy speech of November 1972-

That is the Labor Party policy speech. He then quotes from that policy speech, which stated:

The Australian Labor Party will build into the administration of the affairs of this nation machinery that will prevent any Government, Labor or Liberal, from ever again cloaking your affairs under excessive and needless secrecy.

I think we have proved in this debate that the Government has not sufficiently built in that machinery. It depends on the common sense, activity, interest and vigilance of those people in our community who are concerned with freedom of information being a practical and living creature. We must remain vigilant forever. Those of us in the Senate can do no better than to throw out this amendment, realising that it will strike at the heart of democracy if it continues to exist.