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Monday, 7 March 2005
Page: 30

Senator HARRIS (2:36 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Attorney-General. Is the minister aware of the editorial in the Courier-Mail criticising the appointment of Cathi Taylor as the new Information Commissioner? Is the minister aware that, as reported in today’s editorial in the Courier-Mail, on the first day of office Ms Taylor removed Queensland’s most experienced freedom of information officer, Greg Sorensen—an officer perceived as independent and fearless? Mr Sorensen, one of the architects of Queensland FOI law, now reverts to being the deputy ombudsman. Last year Mr Sorensen and a former Information Commissioner, Mr David Bevan, embarrassed the Premier by releasing secret details of tax funded handouts to the Berri company. Minister, considering the importance of the FOI process, are the actions of the Queensland government appropriate?

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —Senator Harris asks if I am aware of this issue. I am, and I am aware of the Courier-Mail editorial today, which certainly expresses some concern in relation to the appointment of Ms Taylor. It is a matter for the Queensland state government. I would suggest that Senator Harris take up the matter with the Premier of that state if he wishes to pursue the matter. Certainly the Commonwealth has a strong commitment to openness and accountability in relation to its own freedom of information regime. At the federal level we can boast that 94 per cent of all FOI requests are granted, in full or in part. I am aware of the issue Senator Harris raises. His question reflects the concerns which were expressed in the editorial of the Courier-Mail. But it is a matter for the state government in Queensland.

Senator HARRIS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Is the minister aware that the same article reports that Ms Taylor should be distanced from FOI applications concerning the Queensland education department, as her husband is the director-general? Is the minister aware that her leading referee, who also sat on the selection committee, Mr Leo Keliher, is also the Director-General of the Environmental Protection Agency? This raises the question of whether there is a perception of bias in handling any FOIs relating to those areas. Does the minister believe that this type of appointment detracts from the status of the office and undermines the public’s confidence in governments that use such appointments to deprive the public of access to information that they have a genuine right to receive? 

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator, that is a very long supplementary question, and I have doubts whether the minister would wish to answer it. I ask the minister: do you wish to give further information on this matter?

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —I am asked whether I am aware of the concerns expressed. Yes, I am aware of those concerns which have been expressed in the Courier-Mail. I reiterate my earlier comments. This is a matter for the Queensland government, and Senator Harris should pursue this matter with the Premier of that state. Of course, with freedom of information, it is important that you have an open and accountable process. I can speak for the Commonwealth process, which we say is a robust one.