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Monday, March 26, 2007

Former PM says "FOI his most important legacy"

Malcolm Fraser (Prime Minister 1975-1983), when asked of what achievement he was most proud, said Freedom of Information legislation, according to Jack Waterford, Editor at Large of the Canberra Times and the doyen of Australian journalists in use of the FOI Act.

Waterford in "A legacy the PM could recall fondly" in Monday's Canberra Times, reflects on what a John Howard, "on the way out of public life", might consider a suitable legacy to be remembered a decade from now.

Waterford suggests doing something about enforceable standards of conduct for Parliamentarians, a standing inquiry into good administration able to set its own references, and the establishment of formal external scrutiny of public administration in ministerial offices.

Nice try Jack but the odds against are very long.

How about something more modest for the Prime Minister. His name crops up frequently in FOI law as a result of a case in 1985 when, as leader of the Opposition he unsuccessfully sought access to some documents concerning the preparation of the budget. The resulting "Howard factors" are a testimony to old style thinking about accountability, but ever since, at least in the Federal arena, they continue to feature in public interest considerations favouring non disclosure. A couple even got the nod last year from two of the judges of the High Court in the McKinnon case. (The NSW Court of Appeal on the other hand thinks these sort of broad theoretical claims should not be given credence in the absence of evidence of harm to public administration).

Things like communications between senior public servants and ministers and documents concerning the development of policy always need to be protected; and candour and frankness will suffer, or public servants will not write things down if advice documents are disclosed.

Prime Minister Howard could ensure that long after he leaves office, legislation is in place that consigns this sort of clap trap to the dust bin of history. A fair start would be to act on the recommendations in a 1995 report from the Australian Law Reform Commission.

But then again from what you read John Howard probably wouldn't want he and Fraser to both appear in the record books as agreeing on anything, let alone that FOI was their legacy to remember.

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