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Friday, June 06, 2008

Access to advice-perennial question,perennial answer

Battles raged in many of the Senate Estimates Committee hearings over the last two weeks, with the prominent players engaging from a different perspective as they settle into new roles of government and opposition. The battles of course have a familiar ring, with one constant the often unsuccessful attempt to get answers to questions about advice, usually dismissed simply on the grounds that the question goes to advice provided to the government or a minister. Another, is the opinion of the Senate's principal adviser on such matters, the Clerk, Harry Evans:
"As with legal advice, the mere fact that information consists of advice to government is not a ground for refusing to disclose it. Again, some harm to the public interest must be established, such as prejudice to legal proceedings, disclosure of cabinet deliberations or prejudice to the Commonwealth’s position in negotiations. Any general claim that advice should not be disclosed is defeated by the frequency with which governments disclose advice when they choose to do so."(Senate Estimates Finance and Public Administration 28 May page 70)

The same principle of the need to demonstrate specified harm to the public interest is reflected in freedom of information exemptions regarding documents that contain advice. Experience tells this issue can't be left to lawyers and as with the parliament, clearer parameters need to be established and enforced

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