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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Petitions and privacy

A Stay in Touch article (Fields of Clover) in Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald was about an allegation of breach of privacy in connection with information contained in a petition.

We’ll leave it to the City of Sydney Council and the Member for Bligh to sort this one out but it prompts the following thoughts about privacy and petitions generally.

Petitions are a call for action by the people’s representatives. They express a view about a particular matter and call on the Parliament (or local council) to take action.

Those that sign a petition (the requirement usually is for name, address and signature) can have no complaint that the petition is tabled in the Parliament or council. Documents tabled in Parliament or in a council meeting are available for inspection by any member or the public. Some councils include petitions in business papers or minutes and now publish these documents on the web. NSW Parliamentary procedures state that a petition after tabling will be referred to the appropriate minister for consideration.

The Victorian Privacy Commissioner (VPrivCmr[2004]2) found that inclusion of a petition on the web of a local council did not breach that State's privacy laws.

There may be a question about the extent to which local councils and others who receive petitions make members of the public aware of their information handling practices.

Petitions once tabled are "publicly available publications" - in NSW this takes them outside the scope of privacy laws. Information in a petition can, in any event, be used or disclosed consistent with a petition’s original purpose – to promote the democratic processes of government. Privacy laws permit use for other purposes in certain circumstances such as use for a directly related purpose. Follow up by the minister or the minister’s department providing information regarding the matter raised in a petition would clearly be covered by such a provision.

Local councils in NSW are permitted by a Code of Practice approved by the Attorney General to use information held for a purpose related to a lawful function where it is reasonably necessary to do so.

The Queensland Parliament accepts e-petitions and has an information brochure that provides that only the name and address of the petition organiser will be published on the web, although names and addresses of all signatories are included in the original presented to the Parliament and this documents is available for public inspection.

Some other related but quirky provisions of the (NSW) privacy laws at least – Parliament is not an agency covered by the laws which also do not apply to members of Parliament; ministers apparently are not part of an agency for the purposes of the Act although ministerial staff, technically employed by the Premier’s Department are public sector officials subject to the legislation. On the other hand councillors form part of the governing body of a local council and the council is responsible for any breach of privacy principles by the councillor in the course of carrying out council functions.

All makes sense doesn’t it?

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