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Thursday, December 18, 2008

ACT FOI reform two-step.

The new ACT Legislative Assembly sat for three days last week, the first substantive sittings since the election that resulted in the return of the ALP Stanhope Government, formed only through the support of The Greens who hold the balance of power.Three days produced two Freedom of Information Amendment bills-one from the Liberals Vicki Dunne, the other on behalf of the Government from Attorney General Simon Corbell. Both managed a second reading speech from the proponent but no further debate and the Assembly has now adjourned until February. The bills themselves are not up on the Assembly website. Dunne's speech contained little detail (Hansard 10 December 161-162) except it is largely a re-run of an earlier unsuccessful attempt at reform.

The Government's Bill (Hansard 11 December 285-287) would abolish conclusive certificates for cabinet documents and internal working documents (but not for documents that could attract the national security exemption). The reference in an Attorney General media release at the time that "the Freedom of Information Amendment Bill 2008 also proposes additional amendments to protect certain documents that ensure Ministers can fully exercise their responsibilities to the Assembly and its committees" turns out to be new proposed exclusions from the Act for question time briefings, incoming government briefings, annual estimates briefs and cabinet notebooks. The Attorney General used the Queensland Solomon Report and that government's plans to do the same thing as justification, arguing
"that to preserve and promote individual ministerial responsibility, to ensure free, fearless and frank advice, certain communications between government and its public service advisers must be protected. This reinforces the personal, individual responsibility of ministers and their ability to govern effectively and to account to parliament and its committees appropriately. It is in the public interest to preserve the confidentiality of this kind of advice. We all know when in government that the effectiveness of these documents is compromised by the knowledge that such documents may be disclosed under the legislation as it currently stands."
Do we? Are blanket exceptions of this kind vital to enable ministers "to govern effectively and to account to parliament and its committees appropriately."Don't current exemptions work satisfactorily to ensure sensitive information (of the cabinet-notebook variety, for example) is protected from disclosure? And no explanation for acting on these issues in advance of the comprehensive review planned for next year.

The Greens who get to call the shots might have some interesting issues to weigh when the Assembly resumes.

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