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Friday, March 16, 2007

Not much sunshine in ACT Assembly

Meanwhile back in Australia, its business as usual on the FOI front - we're tinkering.

This time it's the Australian Capital Territory Government. The Assembly this week passed changes to the Territory Freedom of Information Act. One of the changes broadens the definition of work in processing an application that can be taken into account in concluding that a request should be rejected on the grounds that it would involve substantial and unreasonable diversion of resources. The change would bring the ACT law into line with others but some critics have seen it as another device to head off complex applications.

Other changes include substituting "personal information" for "personal affairs" to bring the FOI Act privacy exemption into line with privacy legislation.

The most significant change is adding a new exemption for documents that concern international relations or security matters, which mirrors a similar provision in the Federal FOI Act. Again following the Federal model, the ACT legislation will allow for the issue of a conclusive certificate by a minister in connection with this exemption, subject only to limited review.

The Greens Dr. Foskey and Opposition Member Dunne were both highly critical. The Government somehow managed to claim that what it was doing was consistent with transparency and accountability, and justified the limited review on the basis of last year's High Court decision in the McKinnon case.

Everyone except Dr. Foskey voted for the legislation. While debate went over several days the essence of it all is contained in the Hansard for 8 March.

Federal Labor has made quite a fuss about the Government's use of conclusive certificates, and the broad general interpretation of powers to issue them and has promised to abolish them if elected to office.

The ACT Labor Government has shown no interest in any general review of conclusive certificates or anything else in the FOI Act. This amendment is another case of tinkering at the margin, by adding to the considerable armour already in the law to justify refusal of access to documents.

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