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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Alberta businesses take a shine to FOI

From the Edmonton Sun:
According to Privacy Commissioner Frank Work "Alberta businesses have the lion’s share of requests (for information through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act) at 52% while the media is the smallest user at about 2%, (and) private individuals accounted for 30%.The remaining requests came from researchers and organizations such as political parties. Service Alberta Minister Heather Klimchuk credits the province’s transparency for the low number of media requests."
Another reason (nudge, nudge to Australian authorities) may be helpful publication practices:
"The province posts online the following information: flight manifests for government aircraft, minister’s office expenses, all government payments made to third parties, environmental studies and inspection reports for all supportive living facilities."
Business in Australia, generally speaking, has been a voice rarely heard in debate on access to government information issues, and in contrast to the business community in Alberta, seems to regard FOI as some sort of enemy rather than a friend.

Police vigilant in the search for leaks

Last night's Media Watch on ABC TV, and this morning's Law Report on Radio National both provide an overview of recent police raids following leaks of government information - and the promised but still to be delivered shield laws for journalists.

Public opinion about access rights

The Federal Privacy Commissioner conducts a survey of public opinion every couple of years about attitudes to privacy issues- see Research.But in all our Freedom of Information experience in this country since 1982 I'm yet to see any government initiate and publish information about public attitudes to, and understanding of, access to information rights, and trends over time. Such measures of course would throw some light on whether we are getting anywhere in achieving key democratic objectives of FOI legislation- extending the public right to know and increasing public participation in government affairs.

All power to the UK Ministry of Justice for the publication of the Information rights tracker survey - key wave 10 results the tenth such survey since 2005. Key results:
"The majority of respondents are aware of their right to access information under the
Freedom of Information and Data Protection acts, although more respondents are aware of the latter than the former. Respondents tend to disagree that public authorities are open and trustworthy, but tend to agree that public authorities are becoming more open. The majority of respondents think that public authorities can be held to account because of the right to get information from them. Respondents are generally comfortable about giving personal information to businesses and public authorities (more so to the latter than the former). This increased in the latest wave, suggesting that the recent media reports of data losses by public and private sector organisations have not had a marked effect on public opinion on this issue.
Just under a half of all respondents cannot name a specific piece of legislation under
which rights of access to information are granted, which was particularly the case for
respondents aged under 25 and over 65. Between a quarter and a third of respondents can name either the DPA or the FoI Act or both."
Interesting to speculate what percentage of Australians would know people have a legal right to get hold of information about the work of a public authority (UK 83%); about our response to the question whether public authorities are becoming more open about what they do and how they are run (UK 50% agree strongly or slightly); and whether they are generally open and trustworthy (UK 35% agree strongly or slightly). Any government game to find out?

Monday, September 29, 2008

SA FOI court decision shows relevance and irrelevance of age of documents

There were a number of decisions on freedom of information and related matters published by review bodies over the last month while I was away. None at first glance seem to be of earth-shattering significance, but I'll have a closer look as life resumes normal.
Review decisions in South Australia, beyond the Ombudsman, rest with the District Court and are relatively rare. Judge Trenorden in Milton v The City of Unley[2008] SADC 116 last week found two of 16 documents in dispute exempt, but the Council's weak arguments to support the exemption claims in respect of the other 14 received short shrift.

The Council unsuccessfully argued that some documents concerning his apparently widowed mother could be refused to the applicant, her only son and the person accepted by the council as her personal representative (although probate had not been granted to him or anyone else), on the basis of the personal affairs exemption. The South Australian Act stipulates (section 26(5)) the exemption does not apply where the personal representative or nearest living relative seeks access to documents of a deceased person.

Not surprisingly the council also struck out with claims that it would be contrary to the public interest to disclose four of the five documents that satisfied the first part of the internal working document exemption. Judge Trenorden noted the documents were variously 19 to 23 years old, and could find no public interest that would be advanced by non disclosure.The fifth document was exempt but not for the reason argued by the council.

The document, containing information the Council sent to the Mental Health Review Board, was exempt as a document prepared for the purposes of proceedings heard by the tribunal. Another, an Administration Order by the Guardianship Tribunal,was exempt because it had been prepared by the tribunal following proceedings.

These findings illustrate why some exemptions that provide blanket coverage of certain types of documents need to be reviewed in SA and elsewhere where they sit on the statute book- while the aged nature of information had been important in finding working documents were not exempt, it was irrelevant in the case of these exemption claims that the documents were 19 and 22 years old. Public interest or harm tests could not be considered.

"Personal information" but what about the public interest?

And the report below from yesterday's Sun Herald may be in line with many previous NSW Government decisions about the non- disclosure of details of termination payments, but it suggests no shift along the openness and accountability spectrum, or much weighing of the public interest in disclosure, one factor relevant to the proper application of the personal affairs exemption in the Freedom of Information Act. These guys were in their jobs for a couple of months at best. Compenation fpr termination was warranted but why the secrecy about the payments?:
"John Choueifate, who was supposed to save former premier Morris Iemma, boasted that his taxpayer-funded income was no one's business. New Premier Nathan Rees sacked Choueifate and his trusty sidekick Adam Walters but he agrees with Choueifate that his income, and that of Walters, should not be made public. An Opposition freedom of information request, which sought the men's salaries, has been knocked back. In a letter dated September 8 - just after Rees won the top job - the deputy director-general of the Department of Premier and Cabinet Leigh Sanderson decreed the information was off limits because it was "personal". The knock-back has angered Opposition Leader Barry O'Farrell, who said: "If Nathan Rees was committed to open and transparent government, he would have released this information." It's been speculated Choueifate, a former Channel Nine news director, and Walters, the station's former state political reporter, were paid up to $250,000 and $200,000 respectively. A Premier's spokesman refused to detail their salaries but said their special media unit, now scrapped, had an annual budget of $600,000. He said Rees had instructed the money now be used to fund 10 new workers to assist the homeless."
Update: from this Opposition release the application was for the employment contracts.All of my comments still strand.

Ombudsman forced NSW Police convictions disclosure

The Daily Telegraph report by Kelvin Bissett and Gemma Jones today about members (no names) of the NSW Police who have a criminal record is based on documents released in response to a Freedom of Information application. In the event you thought it suggests a new spirit of openness, there is this, buried in the fine print:
"The list of convictions, which police claimed at first did not exist, was released after an appeal to the Ombudsman."
Update: a similar request in the UK resulted in this report yesterday in The Observer- 800 police arrested in the two years to August 2008. Given the recent nature of the information released, and no mention of the need to seek the intercession of the umpire there was clearly less resistance to disclosure there.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Dorothy Dix deserved better

Given the new Premier of NSW Nathan Rees has already said he is committed to greater openness and transparency and to looking at world's best practice on Freedom of information issues, you would have thought he might do better than this, in response to a friendly question from one of his backbenchers in Parliament yesterday.(Legislative Assembly Hansard 25 September)
Mr Gerard Martin: My question is directed to the Premier. Will the Premier inform the House of measures to improve the transparency and accountability of the Government?
Mr Nathan Rees: I thank the member for Bathurst for his question on this most important matter. On day one of my premiership, I said that I was going to rebuild people's confidence in the administration of this Government step by step. That means more accountability and more transparency. We have heard a lot from members opposite today and on previous days about demands for more scrutiny of government, and I am going to give them what they wish.This year the Parliament sits in New South Wales for a record number of days—the most we have sat in 19 years. Next year we will break that record. Next year this Parliament will sit for an additional two weeks. And we can look forward to more sterling-quality questions, such as those we have had today.......That means that on current projections the jurisdiction of New South Wales will have more sitting days in Parliament than any other State or Territory or the Commonwealth....That means an additional two weeks of sittings that will make us the most scrutinised government of any Parliament in Australia...."
There was a bit more about sitting days in other jurisdictions, but that was it.I'm sure the Premier knows, but it will take more than extra sitting days to return the NSW Parliament to its proper role of holding the government to account on behalf of the people.Oh, and the Asssmbly adjourned yesterday until 21 October, then won't sit from mid December until early March 2009.

Unfortunately the Premier and whoever thought up the Dorothy Dix question didn't see the opportunity it provided for a comprehensive statement of how this government plans to deliver on the commitment.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Roxon right on about transparency in the health system

Of course the Federal Minister for Health is right in announcing details of the reform agenda for the hospital system:
"In a speech titled Reform - the New Era to the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association Congress, Ms Roxon said there was no time to waste in boosting the transparency of the health system. "Unless we make the effort to fix our system now, and equip it for the 21st century, we will see it decline in terms of health outcomes, hospital performance, unsatisfied demand and rising costs, as well as a growing gap between those who have the health services they need, and those who do not,'' she said.
"Hospitals are to be "directly compared on safety,efficiency and the cost of medical procedures", according to The Australian's report of her speech- the text is yet to appear on the Minister's website. Let's hope quality of care is also in there somewhere: as Queensland has already shown information about this aspect of health care can be collected and helpfully made publicly available for comparative purposes, as set out in Chapter 7 of the Government's annual report on hospital performance. The Federal Government and the consumers and the taxpayer/ funders of services should expect nothing less from the other states.

Tasmanian Deputy Premier to drive democracy improvement program

Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett continues to emphasise commitment to his 10 point plan to restore trust in democracy, assigning responsibility to Deputy Premier, Attorney General and Minister for Health Lara Giddings to drive and implement the program, and reiterating "this is a very important priority for me".

Advertisements have appeared for a director (at $85000pa) to run a two year review program on Freedom of Information and Public Interest Disclosures, a timetable that seems,well,leisurely to say the least. I'd be a bit cautious about locating responsibility for democracy improvements of this kind in a "legal" department:while lawyers have a role and contribution to make, the public policy and management issues aren't necessarily best left to those who see the world through a legal prism.

Current status of Freedom of Information reform?

Given the numbers in the Senate there may be a chance that Freedom of Information will get a run in debate soon, following this motion by The Greens Senator Milne yesterday:
"That the Senate—
(a)notes that:(i)prior to the 2007 federal election the Australian Labor Party (ALP) promised to reform the Freedom of Information (FOI) process and establish an FOI Commissioner,(ii)at the time the ALP said that ‘The current FOI regime allows the Howard Government to escape real transparency and genuine accountability. For 11 years, the Howard Government has shrunk away from the light of public scrutiny and transparency – by abusing the current FOI laws’,(iii)it took the Government 6 months to decide to release (subject to the agreement of Gunns Ltd) the report by Dr Michael Herzfeld on the potential marine impact of effluent from the Gunns’ pulp mill, and(iv) the Government has recently refused the Senate’s request for the release of the Wilkins report, Strategic Review of Climate Change Policies, citing Howard Government precedence as an excuse; and
(b)calls on the Government:(i)to live up to its election promise to govern with transparency and accountability, strengthening the public interest test for access to information, and (ii)to update the Senate on its review of the FOI process."

Police raid in Canberra raises press freedom and other issues

A police raid on the home of Canberra Times journalist Philip Dorling and the ensuing five hour search, following publication of an article in June about the Defence Intelligence Organisation, raises issues about freedom of the press, shield laws to protect journalist sources, and whistleblowers. The Government is lying low as questions emerge about who initiated the police action, and how the "chilling effect" of such actions fits with pre-election commitmments to act to improve in all three areas.

This paragraph in the Canberra Times report on the raid is of particular interest:
"The (search) warrants outlined allegations that Dorling and an unnamed public servant had committed four breaches of the Commonwealth Crimes Act by communicating confidential government information or documents."
While the draconian nature of the law that makes a crime of unauthorised disclosure of any information acquired in the course of duties by a Commonwealth officer (Section 70 of the Crimes Act) is well known, could a journalist commit a crime by writing a story based on the leak of a ministerial briefing paper?

One possibilitiy is that the Australian Federal Police are investigating whether Dorling's offending article which provided some information about the structure of the Defence Intelligence Organisation and its priorities, transgreses anti-espionage laws.

The Commonwealth Criminal Code, among other things makes a crime of any communication by anyone of information, not already in the public domain, about "the operations, capabilities and technologies of, and methods and sources used by, the country’s intelligence or security agencies", where two other conditions are satisfied: the person communicates the information "intending to prejudice the Commonwealth’s security or defence"; and "the person’s act results in, or is likely to result in, the information being communicated or made available to another country or a foreign organisation, or to a person acting on behalf of such a country or organisation." Penalty: up to 25 years.The Code contains a similar penalty for any public servant who intends to prejudice security and discloses this type of information.

You can bet every embassy in Canberra reads the Canberra Times and would have reported promptly to head office on the article at the time.However " intent to prejudice "constitutes a significant hurdle, and much of what was in the article is probably already in books or on the web, so it's hard to imagine any charges proceeding against Dorling. The main purpose no doubt is to track down the source, and to put the wind up the public service, in particular those in government who deal with potentially sensitive information about intelligence gathering.

Meanwhile Queensland intends to ask the Law Reform Commission to look at the issue of shield laws for journalists after first legislating to compel witnesses to answer questions posed by the Crime and Misconduct Commission, putting reform in this area in that state a long way down the track.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

WA Government acknowledges need to do better on transparency and accountability

The newly elected minority Liberal-National Party Government in Western Australia, sworn into office yesterday, has a first 100 day plan for government courtesy of this pre-election commitment by the Liberal Party Liberal Plan for the First 100 Days of Government .It's incredibly limited in scope and skinny on detail but at least improved accountability rated a mention:
"Release all available information into the Varanus Island Gas Explosion, not hide it like Labor has done. Introduce legislation for fixed parliamentary terms to stop early elections being called for cynical political purposes. Restore an independent Freedom of Information Commissioner and make information available to the public. Legislate for a proper register to monitor the activities of political lobbyists. Appoint an independent Public Sector Management and Standards Commissioner."
There are additional commitments in the Government Accountability policy statement to revive privacy legislation which has languished in the parliament, to scrap Labor's proposal to replace the merits review powers of the FOI Commissioner with the State Administrative Tribunal and to "review the manner in which Departments are administering the FOI process to ensure that Government is accountable and open in accordance with the spirit of the FOI Act."

90 odd days to go, and counting.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Transparency 101 briefing prompts more fundamental interest in best practice

That must have been quite a cabinet briefing on Sunday.We'll need to see the detail but, according to this report in the Sydney Morning Herald, Premier Rees is seriously interested in addressing NSW's "secret state "problem:
"In other developments, Mr Rees today flagged an overhaul of the State's freedom of information legislation, as part of efforts to improve both transparency and accountability of government......Asked if the accountability and transparency proposals involve updating the State's long criticised FOI legislation, Mr Rees said: "Yes we will". "My approach to this issue, or any others, frankly is: ... whatever the problem or the policy area might be, I want to know what jurisdiction, or like jurisdiction in the world does it best, and then the next question I ask is, 'Why don't we do that here?'."
The Premier needs to write to the Ombudsman to make it clear this is what he wants to see in the Ombudsman's report on the review of the legislation currently underway in that office, or to tell the Ombudsman to back off while an independent review takes a look at world's best practice and how to make it work here.

The power of the Canberra Times?

After months of argument, according to the ABC, an apparent rethink about the public interest and a report on the discharge of effluent at the proposed Gunns paper mill, one of Senator Milne's major complaints in the Canberra Times yesterday about how Freedom of Information isn't working.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Mixed signals for FOI from Canberra

Have we seen any real or substantive change in the freedom of information stakes in the nine months since the election of the Rudd Government? Its hard to say as we never hear anything in the public domain about most applications and responses. We know the law so far has remained untouched by the new government, and the guidelines issued to public servants on how it is to be interpreted and applied are those issued under the previous government which the Prime Minister and his colleagues criticised for excessive secrecy. All we have to go on are media or other reports of what is going on.

There have been the occassional positive straw in the wind- for example this sounds an unusual but welcome decision by the Treasury, although reports of what was released or denied don't give the complete picture:
"Documents released to Channel Seven under Freedom of Information requests revealed that, before the budget, Cabinet ministers were provided with more than 83 pages of documents from Treasury and the Department of Family and Community Services, outlining options for increasing the amount or extent of payments to aged pensioners."
But then this from the Canberra Times today quoting The Greens Senator Milne to the effect that it's the same old, same old, when it comes to access to documents about ongoing matters of public controversy. The following comment from the Minister Senator Faulkner which seems to endorse without any qualification resort to the many justifications availed of by the previous government to refuse access, is a far cry from the pre-election promise that things under Labor would be different:
Senator Faulkner said last month the decision to block documents was not taken lightly as the Government endorsed the open and transparent functioning of Parliament.''We come to this position on the basis of extensive precedent, including precedent from the previous government ...'' he said.

Transparency and accountability 101 for NSW Cabinet

Could this ABC report yesterday mean someone at the top in NSW has finally seen the light?
"A special cabinet meeting is underway in Sydney with New South Wales Government ministers receiving a briefing from the heads of the state's two corruption watchdogs. Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) head Gerald Cripps and the Ombudsman Bruce Barbour are detailing what is expected of ministers in terms of accountability and transparency in running their ministerial offices. The Premier says he is drawing a line under the practices of the past and want to strengthen his government's administration. "That's not to say that our ministers aren't already across this, but I've drawn a line under the practices of the past and we are rebuilding the confidence of the people of NSW in our administration block by block," he said.

Thirty hours on the road back from Alaska

Well it was a rainy day so that probably explains why no-one, let alone the occupant rushed to open when I knocked on the door at the Governor's Office in Juneau Alaska last week. The Governor's not often seen thereabouts these days in any event but nothing ventured nothing gained, and nothing turned out to be the case, again, this time.

Three weeks in North America confirm, if a visit was necessary to prove the point, that the US is indeed a foreign country. I like the place and its people a lot, but still come away scratching my head.

For example militarism was evident everywhere in the speeches at the Republican National Convention, prompting audience chants of "USA, USA, USA"; global warming hardly rated a mention there, nor three weeks ago, did the economy; Sarah Palin has been telling audiences to great acclaim that the surge is showing those nasty types in Iraq who were responsible for 9/11, who is the boss; Palin, a smart and successful politician in Alaska, has for the first few weeks at least, been seen as fit for the top job by a sizeable percentage of the population, despite her lack of experience with national issues, because it is seen as self-evident that "regular folks need to take charge"; the electoral contest involves competing families vying for the job of "First Family"; in a country where the prevailing wisdom is that government is the enemy not the friend of the people, and where free market philosophy has reigned supreme for years, the Government in effect has nationalised the world's largest insurance company and picks and chooses which investment banks to save, but not Lehman Brothers; and election coverage on the US domestic versions of CNN and Fox (not the Asia or international editions we see here) is mind- blowingly relentless, 24 x 7, with so much trivia mixed with the real thing- the rest of the world has virtually ceased to exist for America's two most watched news channels,

So, now back in Australia, as this blog is about to resume normal transmission, a prediction despite the fact that with with six weeks to go, anything can and probably will happen. And that the Electoral College system of voting means the outcome depends on 50 separate winner-take-all contests for state wide victories in elections where each state determines the rules on who votes and how the votes will be cast and counted.

Obama is the likely winner because of McCain and because the smart money from donations will allow him to spend big, particularly to get people to vote. At 72, McCain would be the oldest first term president in history, and will be linked with many aspects of the Bush administration of the last eight years, particularly economic performance and Iraq. He has been Mr De-regulation for years, putting him in a difficult spot now given the financial markets crisis.

,with limited experience, and all that in Alaska where standards of governance are, to be polite, way behind what's acceptable even in the Washington of George Bush, is already starting to lose steam and is still to face the sort of forensic examination that all candidates must endure at the hands of the media. Some of the problems arising from husband Todd's involvement in government affairs may mean even greater concern about "two for one" than those that arose for the Clintons. Palin can handle herself publicly but the McCain team and its supporters will be on tenterhooks as the campaign rolls on- an implosion may occur at any time.

Now back to our knitting.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Hacker and The Age find Palin's email problem

According to The Age,that private email account of Governor Palin used for the conduct of some government business, referred to here yesterday, seems to now be attracting interest beyond the local papers in Alaska.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Alaska where at least the air is clean

I have been in Alaska for the last week, the scene of the triumphs of US Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's two years of experience in executive office.

Its a fantastic place to visit but there aren't many people in this neck of the backwoods: about 600,000 all up, 300,000 of those in Anchorage and 30,000 in the state capital, Juneau- about the size of Goulburn NSW which is the height of sophistication by comparison.

In the light of Palin's statements that she plans to "clean up "Washington if elected, its worth noting that the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Better Government Association gave Alaska (along with 37 other states) a Fail grade on Freedom of Information in a report released earlier this year. Alaska ranked third last of the 50 states based on criteria that assessed the law and the way it operates.

Here is a report from the Anchorage Daily News this week about the open secret that the tech savvy Governor uses a personal email address to conduct state business on some otherwise incovenient occassions

A simmering issue reported by a local paper this week highlighted an issue on which Palin disagrees with McCain and the current Republican administration in Washington, and incidentally raised an FOI matter.

"One area where Palin may be embarrassed on the national level is her administration's challenge and lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior for listing polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Basically the state challenged the basic science in the global-warming debate and the models that showed shrinkage of the polar icecap, the prime polar bear habitat. In making the decision to oppose the polar bear listing, Palin acted against the advice of scientists in the state Department of Fish and Game who were working with federal marine mammal scientists in drafting the proposed listing of the polar bears.What could also embarrass Palin is that her position on polar bears puts Alaska at odds with the majority of scientists and governments around the world on global warming and at a time when Alaska is also seeking federal funds to offset problems of coastal erosion in rural villages, which is largely blamed on climate change."

As reported here the Alaska Department of Fish and Game refused a Freedom of Information application for the advice on which the Government's decision to oppose listing was based, but a summary disclosed in response to a Fedearal FOI application was enough to show the claim that scietific opinion supported the move was a lie. The initial estimate of the charges for the unsuccessful Alaskan application was in excess of $US500,000.

Palin has put some life into the 72 year old McCain's campaign image. Only in America could you imagine that "likeability" of the no.2 on the ticket could give a presidential campaign such a boost.The big question is whether it can it last when she faces the inevitable questions about her record and views?

Big FOI issue no big deal for Costello

From today's Australian:

"The former Treasurer seems to have discounted some inconvenient history in his memoirs too.
Publisher Melbourne University Press promises that the book provides "a frank and fearless look inside the engine room of the Howard government", but the memoirs make no mention of Mr Costello's efforts to prevent The Australian from obtaining key government documents on income tax and the first-home buyers scheme in a Freedom of Information battle that was fought all the way to the High Court. Mr Costello supported a Treasury decision to deny The Australian access to the material by issuing a conclusive certificate to prevent its release.
The move galvanised media, academic and political opinion on Freedom of Information, forcing demands for reforms. Special Minister of State John Faulkner announced earlier this year that conclusive certificates would be abolished, describing the move as "a step towards restoring trust and integrity in the handling of government information".

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

ACT Auditor general highlights FOI failings

The ACT Auditor General has found significant fault with Freedom of Information processing in three government departments with a high incidence of failure to meet statutory deadlines.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Victorian Ombudsman cites FOI and whistleblower failings

The Victorian Ombudsman in his annual report tabled in Parliament urges the Government to avoid complacency regarding public sector ethical standards, and in the usual polite and discrete language that ombudsmen use, gave the Government a kick in the pants about Freedom of Infomation.It's a sad comment that 25 years after the legislation was introduced in Victoria the Ombudsman is still lamenting the fact that some involved in administration of the law still don't get it. This from the overview chapter:

"Cultural change is also needed in relation to the administration of freedom of information. In a number of jurisdictions, the basic underlying values of openness and accountability in the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (the FOI Act) are still not properly understood, resulting in an often defensive response to FOI requests. This is despite the fact that the intent of the
FOI Act,and the Attorney-General’s guidelines in relation to it, stress openness and transparency as the primary motivating values that should guide officers in their actions."

The Ombudsman apparently has bent a few ears in government,with some success, over unsatisfactory whistleblower protection legislation:

"The Whistleblowers Protection Act 2001 is an important means by which corrupt behaviour can be brought to light. The objectives of the Act are to encourage and facilitate whistleblowers to make disclosures of improper conduct; to establish a system to investigate these matters; and to protect whistleblowers from any adverse consequences as a result of making a disclosure. I am responsible for assessing, managing and investigating whistleblower disclosures. I have gained considerable experience in the operation of the Act and in handling the challenges that it presents in fulfilling my role.Transparency should be one of the Act’s principal aims and Parliament has an important role in ensuring that the Act is effective. Unfortunately the current legislation is unduly complex and inhibiting to individuals. Some provisions in fact work against the principles of transparency and accountability. I have therefore recommended to the Attorney-General that a review of the Act be undertaken. The Attorney-General has agreed to the review and an interdepartmental committee has been established. I consider this review
to be timely."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Former Privacy Commissioner in the spotlight

Some in Australia involved in privacy issues may have encountered Geoge Radwanski when he was Canadian Privacy Commissioner from 2001 until forced to step down in 2003 after a parliamentary inquiry. Radwanski and his former deputy Arthur Lamarche are now in court in Ottawa charged with fraud and breach of trust. Radwanski allegedly received a loan of $35000 from Lamarche which was not declared in his declaration of financial interests, contrary to the code that applies to Federal public servants, submitted thousands of dollars in expense claims for entertaining Lamarche and other staff members, and drew $16000 in holiday pay that he had not yet earned.

Needless to say, Radwanski is not enjoying much privacy at the moment.

PM's speech makes good and familiar noises

The Prime Minister's speech to the newspaper publishers' conference, referred to yesterday, repeats earlier commitments to Freedom of information reform rather than telling us anything new.Unfortunately the timetable for release of a discussion paper for second phase of reforms -to cover everything except the abolition of ministerial certificates- may be starting to slip:"later this year"has had "or early next year" added.

One positive is that the PM accepts, and keeps repeating, that greater openness and transparency is necessary if one of the Government's goals of increasing public participation in government affairs is to be achieved. Freedom of Information has failed to deliver on this front right across the country, with relatively little use of FOI rights to seek access to information about policy development and government decisionmaking. Many of those interested long ago worked out that long delays, high cost and the limited chances of getting much useful information, meant that applications for these type of documents weren't worth the effort. If the Government's slow progress on reform can make our democracy more vibrant in this way there will be plenty to cheer about-eventually.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Dropping in from Canada

From afar in Canada, itself in election mode since Sunday, the new NSW Government appears to be on the back foot within days.

Meanwhile Minister Faulkner didn't say much new about whistleblower protection in this speech launching the Whistle While They Work Report of Dr AJ Brown of Griffith University.Next step is the Dreyfus report in February 2009.

And this ABC report of the Prime Minister's address to a publishers conference doesn't advance things either on the Freedom of Information reform front, with its emphasis on his obsevation that some degree of confidentiality in government will always be necessary. Perhaps the speech itself was more more encouraging but is yet to appear on the PM's website.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Freedom of information in NSW - a chance to do better

Developments in NSW including a new premier and deputy premier have been heard this far away in Canada. As Matthew Moore in today's Sydney Morning Herald wonders, will the new leadership follow a more enlightened path on access to information than their predecessors? The Carr and Iemma governments both seemed comfortable, even defiant in wearing the "secret state" tag. There are plenty of ways for the new crowd to demonstrate "we're not them", but a commitment to open and transparent government, and steps to make this a reality would be a great start.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Canada developments resonate with visitor from Australia

I'm travelling in the US and Canada at present, for the last few days in Ottawa.

 Today's Ottawa Citizen has two items of interest and relevance to our own access to information situation in Australia.

The editorial "Daring to dine out" comments on the fact that local councils in Ontario do not have the resources to inspect restaurants for compliance with health standards,which require three inspections a year for those in the high risk category. But Ottawa's council is to make inspection reports available online "so that the dining public can access the results quickly", bringing Ottawa into line with emerging international best practice. No Australian state, territory or local government jurisdiction has been prepared to go there so far.

 The paper also reports on the results of a three year inspection by the Information Commissioner into whether government agencies had "secret rules" for processing Freedom of Information applications from media organisations, leadingto delays in disclosure of documents. The Commissioner couldn't find evidence of secret rules but found plenty of instances of unfair and unjustifiable delays where "special handling" labels were attached to applications. This is an area that warrants attention from the NSW Ombudsman and others who are looking at what goes on in our own systems.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

NSW Ombudsman lays out the issues on FOI

The NSW Ombudsman has released this Discussion Paper on the NSW Freedom of Information Act seeking submissions generally and on 139 specific issues. The Ombudsman said the review of FOI is also to extend to close examination of administration of the Act in 18 agencies including a sample of state and local government bodies and others in the health and  university sector. Here is coverage today in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald  

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Supreme Court win for former student over exam paper and marking guides

The Victorian Supreme Court found no error of law in a decision by the Civil and Administrative Tribunal that an examination paper and two marking guides of the University of Melbourne were not exempt under the Freedom of Information Act. The Court decided that the correct approach had been taken in assessing whether the purpose for which the documents had been prepared had been completed at the time the application was made. The provision in the Victorian Act differs from other FOI legislation as mentioned in this earlier post.

There is a bit more about the case in The Australian Higher Education Supplement.