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Friday, October 24, 2008

Premier Rees clear message to NSW public sector:The public has a right to know

In addition to the media release issued yesterday, NSW Premier Nathan Rees made a statement in Parliament on improving transparency and accountability. The full text is at page 33 of Hansard.

Without repeating much of what was in the media release the following are some important points from the Premier's statement that ministers, ministerial staff, public servants and those who seek information from government agencies might keep in mind. They're the views of the man in charge (emphasis added):

"In the estimates hearing last week....I indicated my clear preference for publicly releasing reports that the Government has commissioned. Transparency and accountability are the cornerstones of good government. The people of New South Wales should be given as much information as possible about the activities of the Government.....

I have examined the(Freedom of Information) Act and met with the Ombudsman over the last six weeks and it is clear to me that this Act is broken. I plan to fix it. The days of a secret State are over. Queensland has done its own review recently. I support what Premier Bligh is doing and the direction she is taking: in particular, applying a stricter public interest test, reducing the number of freedom of information exemption categories and having more effective provisions so that time limits are complied with.

While it is tempting to just take the recent Queensland review and implement it here, the Ombudsman has asked me not to simply adopt those recommendations just yet but to wait until his report is complete in the new year. I have taken that advice and given my support for his review.

I intend to create a new Freedom of Information Act in New South Wales early next year after receipt of the Ombudsman's report. One should bear in mind that this Act is 20 years old, designed well and truly before the electronic age. It is broken and we will fix it. Obviously I cannot commit to implementing all of the recommendations sight unseen but I do commit to fundamental reform of the Act.

As I have discussed with the Ombudsman in recent weeks, the three most important protections that I think the freedom of information system needs to preserve are: first, the confidentiality of a citizen's personal information; second, the confidentiality of commercially sensitive information that might prejudice business community members; and, third, the confidentiality of Cabinet deliberations to protect the collective responsibility of Ministers in Cabinet, a notion that has served our Westminster system well, here and overseas, for centuries. Other exemptions are important but my general view is that the public interest is best served by making information freely available.

Many of the people I have spoken to in recent weeks about this matter said that it is as much about culture as it is about black letter law. In advance of a new Act I also committed to making changes promoting a pro-disclosure culture and practice in the public sector that go beyond the Freedom of Information Act. I firmly believe that the routine disclosure of information outside of freedom of information fosters transparency and makes the Government more accountable for its actions. It also cuts the taxpayer-funded cost of dealing with reams of freedom of information applications.....

Next week I expect more reports and information to be available. It is time for the culture within government to change. My clear message to the New South Wales public sector is this: The public has a right to know."


  1. Nigel Waters11:43 am

    Encouraging development if he doesn't get mugged along the way to delivery!

    Particularly pleasing to see his reference to a legitimate exception being protecting "confidentiality of a CITIZEN's personal information" (my emphasis) - hoping that this is intentionally qualified not to encompass spurious claims of confidentiality of personal information about public servants. One of the unfortunate by-products of the change in terminology in the Cth Act from personal affairs to personal information was an added excuse for withholding information about public servants' official activities. It will be important that if this change is also made to the NSW Act, that there is a clawback to ensure that this excuse cannot be used. Privacy and FOI can co-exist provided issues like this are dealt with adequately.

  2. Nigel
    There is an answer to this-eg the WA FOI Act contains a provision that excludes from the definition,information about the conduct of public functions by a public servant( or words to that effect).Thanks. Peter