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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Tasmanian Government commitment to contract disclosure

Buried away in the Tasmanian Premier's State of the State address (see Premier's Address) to Parliament on 26 September were some major new commitments to greater openness and accountability. They included proposed reforms in presentation of budget and financial information, separate budgets for the Ombudsman and the Auditor General and limitations on the use of confidentiality provisions in government contracts.

A new policy has been foreshadowed that will prevent confidentiality requirements being included in procurement and other contracts with third parties subject to an exemption where a committee, comprising the secretaries of the departments of Justice, Premier and Cabinet and Treasury and Finance, decides such a provision is necessary in the public interest. The Government tenders website will disclose any contracts which contain confidentiality clauses, and any time limit set for confidentiality.

Copies of all procurement and other contracts with a value of over $2million, subject to any confidentiality provision, will be made available for public scrutiny.

As usual the devil will be in the detail, but this is a step in the right direction.

It follows changes introduced in South Australia last year that amended the FOI Act so that the business affairs exemption no longer applies to information contained in contracts. The confidential information exemption cannot be used in relation to information in a contract unless the confidentiality clause was approved by a minister before it is executed.

Confidentiality clauses in contracts are still a major brake on access in other jurisdictions. The NSW Government has been saying for 12 months that Treasury is working on new guidelines regarding disclosure of government contracts, but the Auditor General has found that "guidelines" are often not reflected in agency practice in any event.

The NSW ADT recently found that inclusion of a confidentiality clause is sufficient to justify refusal of access to any information in a contract, apparently disregarding issues such as the nature of the information, and any public interest in disclosure.

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