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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"Critics of FOI join me" as Faulkner nails colours to the mast

There were further references to Freedom of Information in the hearing of Budget estimates of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet referred to in the last post. Mostly political point-scoring about things that had nothing to do with the Department such as this decision in March about the National Broadband Network tender. However Minister Faulkner used the opportunity to repeat his strong commitment to change.The following, particularly parts emphasised, is worth noting on the record.

Senator Faulkner—It would be quite inappropriate to talk at this committee about what appears to be an FOI request made within another agency. It appears that that is the case. I have certainly been advised that it is not an FOI request within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. I am sure you would appreciate that if there is an issue to be raised then it is an issue to be raised at another committee either with the minister at the table there or more appropriately with the department. There might be an issue with the departmental or agency decision maker. I do not know any of the details of this at all, Senator. But do not think for one minute that my commitment to FOI reform is lessened by some decision that has been made. I can assure you that, over the years, I have seen a lot of decisions made under the current legislation that have worried me. I worried about the issue of conclusive certificates, and you would be aware that there is a bill in the parliament to remove the capacity to issue a conclusive certificate. So I think there is a lot wrong with the regime. I think there is a lot wrong with the laws. I think there is an awful lot that can be done and a real need—and a long overdue need—for reform; and that is what the government is committed to doing. If you have criticisms of the way the current regime works, frankly, join me.[123]

Senator Faulkner—It is appropriate for decision makers in agencies to act in accordance with the FOI legislation. There is obviously an obligation they have to do that. Do I think that the current FOI legislation is adequate? No, I do not. Do I think it is in need of a very significant overhaul? Yes, I do. But do I think it is appropriate that I speculate on a possible decision that an FOI decision maker has made in some agency or department that I am not aware of? Certainly not, and I would not do that. I think that is quite inappropriate for me to comment on.[124]

Senator Faulkner—Well, let me make it very clear to you so you are under absolutely no illusions about this whatsoever: the government is committed and I am committed, as I think most people who take an interest in politics know, to reforming the Freedom of Information Act. We are committed to doing that, so we will promote a pro-disclosure culture across government. We want to build, as I have said on many occasions, a stronger foundation for more openness in government. I might also say, if it assists you in relation to this, that a short time ago, I think on 30 April this year, I wrote to departmental secretaries and heads of agencies—I think it was 151 letters in total—asking them to take a lead role in facilitating the government’s policy objective of enhancing that culture of disclosure and also to make it clear to FOI decision makers in their agencies that the starting point for considering a request should be a presumption in favour of access to documents. So, in answer to that question, Senator, let me say clearly and categorically to you that I have nailed my colours to the mast and my commitment on this is very, very strong indeed. That does not mean I should wander inappropriately into an issue in relation to a particular FOI application in a particular agency of which I have absolutely no knowledge whatsoever.[124-125]

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