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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Need to walk as well as talk

Lenore Taylor sums up on ABC TV's The Insiders today, after discussion of the Prime Minister's reaffirmation this week of the commitment to promoting a culture of disclosure in government:

"The new era of open government is something you do rather than something you talk about".

Matthew Moore in "Time to walk the walk Treasurer" in The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday:

"The Treasurer, Wayne Swan, was pressed on the Treasury decision on the ABC's Insiders(last week). He said the decision was nothing to do with him, suggesting that the bureaucrat using the "unnecessary debate" argument to withhold information was making the only decision available to him under the law.Not quite, Treasurer. Bureaucrats are free to release information that is exempt under the act. All they need is some encouragement to do so. Swan should not pretend nothing can happen until the law is changed. As the FoI expert Peter Timmins has pointed out, the law allows ministers to intervene. Swan could order the material's release.There would be no better way to prove this government's rhetoric about improving FoI is more than just hot air from politicians."

The point about intervention by ministers is not that ministers should get involved in day to day decisions in response to Freedom of Information applications- let's hope they have better things to do with their time. However they shape the law and create the policy environment in which the law is administered, and that's where the Treasurer was way off track in washing his hands of anything to do with Treasury's approach to disclosure . Within the context of the law (and everyone including the Prime Minister and with the exception of the Treasury, thinks it requires substantial change), and policy ( ditto,but still in the good intentions tray), the responsible public servant needs to exercise judgment about disclosure.

However as I pointed out last week:

"There is a strange quirk in the Federal Freedom of Information Act that has never been changed since 1982 - Section 23 says that a decision on a request for access made to an agency may be made by the minister responsible, or authorised public servants. No one has any idea how many decisions have been made by ministers, as this sort of detail has never been included in annual reports. It should be scrapped, but until such time, it is in accordance with the law if the Treasurer at any time feels the need to make a decision on an FOI application for documents that go to important matters of public policy, such as in this case the inflationary impact of the government's industrial relations policy. "

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