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Monday, March 12, 2007

Major parties in NSW election opaque on transparency

Those words "how I plan to improve transparency and accountability in NSW" are still to pass the Premier's lips in the NSW election campaign. The list of achievements and plans makes no mention of reform in this area.

Well, thats not quite right, he did make one commitment last year: the Premier told a Parliamentary Committee on 28 August 2006
"..the administration continues to review the operation of the (FOI) Act on an ongoing basis. Following that, along with consultation with the Ombudsman, the Government has published additional guidance for agencies in relation to Cabinet confidentiality. The Government has also been working with the Ombudsman to update the manual for freedom of information practitioners. That manual will be available at the end of this year. It will be finalised by the end of this year and will be up to date"
There is not a scrap of evidence publicly available that the FOI Act has been under review - or at least anything approaching a comprehensive review - "on an ongoing basis". In fact the Government has not acted on recommendations from the NSW Ombudsman over the last decade calling for such a review. The Government voted against legislation introduced by Lee Rhiannon in the Legislative Council last year that would have required an independent review of the Act.

When we drew attention in January to the fact that the 12 year old manual-hopelessly out of date had not been replaced despite the Premier's commitment,we had a phone call from the Premier's Department to tell us the Manual was "at the printers". It looks as if it's still there and any statement of policy about the Government's approach to implementation of the FOI Act will remain safely on the printing press until after the election.

Opposition Leader, Peter Debnam has added nothing to a "Ministerial Accountability" policy released last year that would provide - wait for it - performance pay for ministers. Although the current Shadow Treasurer Peta Seaton spoke in Parliament last year about robust reform of disclosure laws, the Opposition haven't seen fit to give this a run, and Seaton is not seeking re-election.

However The Greens, the Australian Democrats and several prominent independent candidates have had something to say on the subject.

The Greens leader, Lee Rhiannon MLC, who has been a strong advocate for review and reform of the Freedom of Information Act, included the following in her policy priorities announced at the party launch yesterday:
"Open government directive and appoint an Information Commissioner.
Require government agencies to actively and routinely publish government held information on the web, with limited exceptions, thus reducing the public's reliance on FOI requests. Establish an independent 'Information Commissioner', responsible for FOI and privacy. The Commissioner would facilitate a shift to open government, monitor compliance with FOI laws and assist individuals with complaints".
Further details are contained in this background brief.

The Australian Democrats whose Arthur Chesterfield-Evans has also been prominent in efforts to improve FOI laws, and who is up for re-election, are committed to introduce new legislation for true open government, based on the New Zealand model, and to make FOI laws workable.
See more details here

Sitting independent members also running again have emphasised their commitment to FOI:
Clover Moore running for Sydney has outlined her initiatives and plans here, and in this article in yesterday's Telegraph David Barr the Member for Manly mentioned an overhaul of freedom of information laws to make it easier for the public to obtain government documents.

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