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Monday, November 13, 2006

Will NSW FOI Bills make the cut?

The NSW Parliament sits tomorrow and for another 10 days thereafter before it adjourns and there are no other sitting days scheduled until the election on 24 March.

There are three relevant FOI Bills in the system but the schedule for these remaining sitting days will be heavy and that's without even taking into consideration the slanging matches that can be expected in the light of recent ministerial catastrophes, and pre election positioning.

The Freedom of Information Amendment (Improving Public Access to Information) Bill proposed by The Greens Lee Rhiannon, passed the Legislative Council on 19 October, despite the fact that all Government members voted against it, but now has to pass the Legislative Assembly where the Government has the numbers.

The Independent Member for Bligh, Clover Moore, finally found Government support for her Freedom of Information Amendment (Open Government - Disclosure of Contracts Bill) (after it sat on the Notice Paper for a year), and it passed the Legislative Assembly on 26 October. It now needs to get on the agenda for the Legislative Council but would be likely to sail through if it gets a run.

The third Bill is the Government's own - a relatively minor amendment to the FOI Act that would provide for a new exemption for information obtained by the Director General of Education from a "relevant agency" about a student seeking enrollment in a public school where the student may pose a risk to teachers.

The Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2006 is primarily about providing powers to the Minister for Education (to develop guidelines) and the Director General of the Department to gather information. The FOI Amendment would exempt access by anyone other than the student and his/her family and is a side issue to some extent.

The Bill itself seems to have significant privacy implications as pointed out by Parliament's Legislation Review Committee in Digest 16 released last week. It's come to pass because of some recent decisions that have gone against the Department of Education concerning its duty to provide a safe workplace for teachers, and some rather shocking incidents involving assault in the class room.

The Committee has sought more information from the Minister about the justification for the detail about what type of information can be collected and from whom, isn't spelt out in the legislation but would be entirely in the hands of the Minister. There is nothing on the record to indicate that the NSW Privacy Commissioner was consulted or had a view about the privacy issues arising.

While this Bill hasn't passed either house, given that it's the Government's own proposal, the odds on it getting through both stages are good, despite the end of term squeeze. The other two Bills are of much greater significance but there will be plenty of opportunity for the Government to lend its weight to other items of business in the hectic few sitting days left.

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