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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Odious cerificates to go, the rest still just good intentions

Cabinet Secretary Senator John Faulkner announced today that legislation will be introduced to abolish conclusive certificates-power to certify that disclosure of a document in response to a Freedom of Information application would be contrary to the public interest- and the associated limitation on review of such a decision. Media Release 25/2008 - Freedom of Information Reform

It's a welcome announcement, but more than a little disappointing that that's it for now, coming as it does eight months after the election of a new government that made so much of its plans for fundamental reform, plans that are still somewhere out there in the future.

Conclusive certificates have been criticised for years as undermining the objects of the legislation. While there have been a number of high profile cases, only 14 certificates apparently were issued in the period 1996-2006, during which time there were something of the order of 400,000 applications under the Act.Their abolition is good news and the decision goes further than the partial abolition recommended by the Law Reform Commission in 1995. But it's hardly a killer blow to the old guard, and does nothing to address the cultural problem, and the cost, delay and obfuscation that are the real obstacles when it comes to access to information about the conduct of government functions, particularly the background to policy and administrative decisions.

Senator Faulkner repeated the Government's commitment to "reforming the Commonwealth FOI Act and to promoting a pro-disclosure culture across the Government". Legislative reform will see a discussion paper later in the year and legislation in 2009, so it's still a long haul. The Australian Law Reform Commission, given another reference on FOI in the dying days of the Howard Government, has been told to desist.

As to the essential culture change, I'm not sure what model Senator Faulkner is working from, but it's going to take a lot more than the gentle nudge he gave senior public servants last week that the Government is relying on them to help achieve truly transparent and accountable government.

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