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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

NSW Premier Rees off to a promising start on transparency issues

NSW Premier Nathan Rees provided some positive indications in his appearance before the Legislative Council Budget Committee on Tuesday of the commitment to move the state away from the "secret state" tag worn with such pride for so long, and to enter a new era of less spin and more transparency. There is a long road to hoe here, but the new man made a more promising start on this front than any of his predecessors since Nick Greiner 20 years ago.

First up- ministers media releases will be posted on the web. Now don't laugh but the following exchanges represent the breaking of new ground in NSW,where ministers have worked hard to leave as few footprints as possible since the arrival of Labor in office in 1995, and the advent of widespread use of the internet around the same time:
The Hon. CATHERINE CUSACK: Premier, now that we have media releases that are informative rather than spin, will you agree to list all of those on your Premier's website and require your Ministers to list their media releases on their websites?
The Hon. CATHERINE CUSACK: And Ministers as well?
The Hon. TREVOR KHAN: In regard to putting your media releases up on the website, what time frame will you commit to to achieve that degree of transparency?
Mr NATHAN REES: I am happy to have a Premier's memorandum out by the end of the week on that. Today is Tuesday—I can do it by close of business tomorrow. Incidentally, we had already made that decision prior to today.
But the Premier isn't rushing to go too far in this direction:
The Hon. TREVOR KHAN: ....Premier, are you prepared, as the Prime Minister and former Prime Minister did, to post transcripts of press conferences on the website as well?
Mr NATHAN REES: Can I take that on notice?
The Hon. TREVOR KHAN: Sure.
Mr NATHAN REES: There are any number of people who tape every press conference. If they want to put them up, and that is over and above the other elements of media scrutiny, that is a call for them.
The Hon. CATHERINE CUSACK: I do not think they have the taxpayer-funded transcripts of press conferences. My colleague is asking if you would be willing to put those publicly funded transcripts on the website
Mr NATHAN REES: They do not read very well. That would be a concern of mine.
The Hon. CATHERINE CUSACK: Is that a reason not to post them?
Mr NATHAN REES: In part, yes, it is. Often I am asked to comment on things on the run. I would much rather give the public, if they are accessing it, a succinct position rather than something I have had to take on notice, whether it be in a press conference or here. My preference at this stage is to not do it, but I am not ruling it out.
The Premier and the Director General of his department then told the committee how much appointments of two additional spin doctors in the dying days of the Iemma Government cost on an annual basis($600,000), their salaries($290,000 and $220,000) and how much each had been paid on redundancy($30,000 and less than$20,000) when the new Premier sent them packing on day one in the job.Worth noting because of the recent refusal of a Freedom of Information application on the grounds information was personal. The Director General also disclosed that former Reserve Bank Governors Fraser and McFarlane are each being paid $3500 per day to provide advice on economic management.

This is all a contrast to the ancien regime which would have fought tooth and nail to resist disclosure of this sort of stuff.

The Premier noted he had released via the web a report by Boston Consulting on Railcorp which formed the basis of his decision to bring the State Owned Corporation back under ministerial control within a day of being asked for it, and said he would hope to be able to release the Twomey report on political funding within the next 10 days- a report the Government had received in August but which he had started reading last week.

The following exchange on freedom of information reform is a stark contrast to the belligerence evident when similar issues were raised a couple of years ago with then Premier Iemma and the Director General of the Department (now Secretary of the Federal Attorney General's Department) Roger Wilkins:
Ms LEE RHIANNON: Premier, Queensland, Northern Territory, Ireland, Canada and the United Kingdom all have an independent information commissioner. Your predecessors failed to overhaul the Freedom of Information Act for 19 years. Will you adapt an information commissioner and move to overhaul the laws without just relying on the Ombudsman? Your Government failed to do the review itself. Will you now move on it and do it?
Mr NATHAN REES: I have already said I want to reform the freedom of information laws. I think there is a public expectation for it but most importantly there is a policy imperative around it. Since the New South Wales Act was passed there has been an explosion in Internet usage and electronic communications and so on. I meet with the Ombudsman this week. That will not be the sole source of advice I take on the matter. I am particularly interested in Anna Bligh's response to the report that was done in Queensland. There will be changes to freedom of information legislation. I would like to be able to give you more details today but our thinking on it is not that advanced yet except to say there will be significant reform.
Ms LEE RHIANNON: Can you give us a time line? When is that going to happen? We had the promises before from Mr Carr and it just went off into the never never.
Mr NATHAN REES: Can I take that on notice? I do not know how comprehensive the process to date has been. I do not know when Mr Barber's report is going to be finalised. I need to get advice on the Queensland response. Can I take it on notice?
Ms LEE RHIANNON: Okay, thank you.
After wrongly claiming that NSW ministers were subject to a cooling off period for post ministerial employment in areas within their responsibility( they are only required to consider talking to the Parliamentary Ethics Adviser) the Premier said he would look at the four year old recommendations of the ICAC "and, if there are improvements to be made for the sake of transparency, I am happy to look closely at them."

A promising start if action backs up words.

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