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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

NSW Ombudsman acts to review FOI Act

The NSW Ombudsman has announced today a comprehensive review of the Freedom of Information Act, which will cover not only the provisions of an act which he describes as dated, complex and difficult,but also its day to day implementation to identify what works well and what could be improved.

So, first, this is good news.

It comes 17 years after the then Ombudsman first called for a review of this kind, a call repeated at regular intervals by those who followed him in office since. All NSW governments have remained unmoved on the issue of review and reform during this time.The announcement comes seven months after the Premier, Morris Iemma was asked in Parliament what he intended to do in the light of the Ombudsman's call for review in last year's annual report.Five months later he said the head of his department would have a chat with the Ombudsman. Nothing has been heard from him since. The Ombudsman appears to have decided, finally, enough is enough

Then on the down side.The review process is likely to take a year or so, giving the Government a convenient way of avoiding doing anything in this area until it is completed. In the absence of even the slightest acknowledgment by the Premier of the need for change, the Government will have complete discretion on what, if anything it will do in response to the findings. And as is the way with these things, the Government may take months or years to respond in any event.

It could all be very different if the Premier indicated his intention to put NSW at the forefront in enhancing democratic practices in Australia and made a commitment to open, transparent and accountable government, with a modern FOI Act that recognised and guaranteed the right of access to information, unless some demonstrable harm would result from disclosure.

If that was where he wanted to go, a short sharp review of the kind commissioned by the Queensland Premier last year, or the Ombudsman and a small group of others, would only take a few months to tell him how to get there.

The Premier and the Premier of Queensland were both at the 2020 Summit in Canberra last weekend. Both would have heard that fundamental changes in FOI were high on the list of changes needed in governance. The Queensland Premier has indicated she intends to keep in touch with those from Queensland who attended -one of her particular interests? Their input on freedom of information.

Now there's an idea Mr Iemma.

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