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Friday, March 27, 2009

Minister's mistake raises broader issue of parliament and transparency.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon is in the spotlight now over his failure to declare on the Register of Interests that two trips to China years ago were paid for by a long-time friend and well-connected Chinese born Australian businesswoman/property developer who has made substantial donations to the ALP.

The Register of Interests contains information of financial interests, stocks and shares held, gifts received over a certain value, and memberships of Clubs and Associations for Senators and Representatives.It's available for public inspection at Parliament House during business hours if you happen to be in Canberra.

We know courtesy of Open Australia that the Register consists of 1500 pages often handwritten, and is only available now on the web page they have put up for each member and senator because a volunteer
Stephen Thorne at Netbox Blue scanned the lot.There is a caveat on what is on the web that it is not supported or maintained by Parliament and may not be up to date.

It's a great volunteer effort but how to explain Parliament never saw the need for this level of transparency or the need to provide not just the register but search capability (not possible in the format provided to Open Australia) that would enable us to readily ascertain where declared interests and gifts cross and connect?

The issue of access to information about members and senators cropped up at the Free Speech Conference on Tuesday. Minister Faulkner (transcript) responded to a question about parliamentarians from Michael McKinnon:
"The Government does not propose to include MPs within the scope of the FOI Act. This act is about providing access to documents of the executive, and I have announced today very significant far reaching reform in relation to that."
He went on to say, correctly, that some information about parliamentarians and their use of our money is held by the Department of Finance and Deregulation. It's far short of the full picture.

I asked
the Minister about web availability of reports on travel by members of parliament and by chance about that Register of Interests. Here is the minister's response:

"..I do accept also the principle that transparency is important in these areas. I have long argued as persuasively as I can within government and within the Parliament, that certainly in the area of the administration of parliamentary entitlements, more transparency leads to better practice. And I have made any number of statements to that effect. It leads to more accountability and better practice. So I support the princ… not only do I support the principle, I hope you've seen some very tangible indications that I'm putting that into practice wearing my hat as Special Minister of State. You do mention the issue of the Register of Pecuniary Interests. The point may well be well made in relation to it not being available on the web. I'm very loath to trample into areas that are the responsibility of both the Department of the House of Representatives and the Department of the Senate, as you would appreciate. The points are well made, and I can certainly pass that on to my colleagues, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate."

I'm not holding my breath on the last point. But the question remains why the Government decided not to act on the 1995 Australian Law Reform Commission recommendation (Open Government Report 77 Recommendation 73) that the parliamentary departments be brought within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.That's the situation in the UK- the Government having retired hurt from a recent proposal to change this- and the Canadian Information Commissioner (Recommendation 7) has just made a recommendation to this effect because

" Canadians expect all publicly funded bodies to be publicly accountable under access to information legislation. Therefore, it is recommended that the administrative records of the Senate, the House of Commons, the Library of Parliament covered by the Act, subject to provisions protecting Parliamentary..privileges"

Australians are likely to share the sentiment, not just concerning the Federal parliament but in respect of each state and territory parliament as well.

1 comment:

  1. Great Post Peter. Very Timely, in the light of Rudd and Conroy's Push to Introduce Internet Censorship

    Transparency in the day and age we live in is so important. And indeed bringing all Parliamentary Reporting Online is the Key.

    With Concentration of Main Stream Media, now with Heavily Vested Corporate Interests, the barriers to transparency and thus accountability are increasingly on the rise.