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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Wisdom from international conference in NZ

As the Rudd Government starts to get feet under the desk, an important meeting of information commissioners and other interested in the issue of access to government information gets under way in New Zealand. There are about 180 attendees and the program promises to provide some valuable insights into thinking about how to make freedom of information laws more effective.

Some papers and abstracts are available on the program page (including a paper by Megan Carter, an Australian FOI consultant"FOI with Bite: Recipes for Openness see here). The Day three discussion 'Policy advice and politically sensitive requests', is of particular relevance given some of the recent controversy over this type of information in Australia. The Commonwealth Ombudsman ('Design of effective oversight bodies') and Deputy Victorian Ombudsman ('Investigations into systemic FOI problems') also spoke on Day three.

Professor Alasdair Roberts of Syracuse University, in the US is regarded as one of the leading authorities on the subject. On the eve of the conference Roberts commented that while 70 countries now have FOI laws, few if any, have their laws working successfully: "the adoption of a law is one thing but making it work is another, these laws are complicated devices and need a lot of care and attention to work properly". Roberts said that privatisation has moved many organisations that continue to conduct public functions, outside the scope of FOI law.

Roberts says that we need better research of how well FOI works in practice, who uses FOI, and what they do with the information when they get it. The full text of Roberts paper at the conference is available on the Day two program page.

Another event to coincide with the conference is the publication of a new book by Nicola White "Free and Frank" about FOI in New Zealand. NZ is often held up as an example of a system where FOI works much more effectively than in Australia. However in this article in the New Zealand Herald, White comments that a high degree of cynicism marks the relationship between those who make, and those who deal with, documents that may have political impact. "Those making requests felt it was being abused in terms of information that was not being released, for which there was no effective sanction. Those in government saw manipulation by the Opposition bogging them down with fishing expeditions". In a comment in last week's Australian news that the (then) federal government had won a legal battle to avoid disclosure of policy options regarding WorkChoices, White said such a legal fight would be unnecessary in New Zealand where Cabinet documents were available as a matter of course after decisions were made.

White suggests that steps should be taken to avoid a weekly contest about what should and shouldn't be released and the resulting cynicism. More explicit rules are needed about what must or may not be released.

There should be plenty of food for thought for Australian governments from these comments and other observations made during the rest of the week in Wellington.

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