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Friday, May 08, 2009

Only a small round table required for Federal FOI Reform discussion

The public forum on the Federal Government's Freedom of Information Reform package in Canberra yesterday was a useful chat about some of the issues arising and the detail of elements of the draft legislation. But not much in the way of improved understanding about why some of the 1995 recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission -for example,extension of the act to the parliament, reducing time for processing from the long established 30 days to 14 days, fees to be based on documents released - have not been acted upon. The answer from officials is that the tabled draft legislation is the Government's policy - and that's about it.

The draft drew positive comments overall, with particular mention of the way the new objects and specified public interest considerations tip things in the direction of disclosure. Issues raised and discussed included whether the continuing centrality of "documents" in the legislation is appropriate in the digital information age; the need for some expedited processing process; what can be expected from the publication scheme and problems in making it work in a uniform fashion; how to promote compliance and the powers the Information Commissioner will need; the exemptions, and the new broadened public interest test; and the review and appeal processes. There were plenty of suggestions from participants about how aspects of the draft might be improved. Written submissions close next Friday.

There were about 15 in the room but if you exclude those from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Minister's Office, the Privacy Commission, the Archives Authority and the ACT Government, it came down to a very small group consisting of the major law firms, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Dr Moira Paterson from Monash University, a self-described interested citizen, and your humble blogger, with a few latecomers, designations unknown.

No business, interest, community or rights groups; other academics even from the handily located Australian National University or the University of Canberra
; journalists who cover government, FOI or related law fields, or other media representative organisations. And as to the citizenry.....

It was just a few days before Parliament resumes, so plenty of other distractions for those in Canberra including a stream of Budget leaks. The tyranny of distance and other priorities for the rest perhaps. I'd like to think it wasn't a reliable indication of attitudes out there to one of the new objects
of the legislation: to promote representative democracy by increasing public participation in Government's processes.


  1. Anonymous3:24 pm

    Was there any discussion of the investigatory powers of the Information Commissioner under new Part VIIB of the Act? I note that the Commissioner has substantial powers (i.e. to enter premises).

    The Companion to the exposure draft of the NSW Open Government Bill states that their Commissioner will have the investigatory powers of a Royal Commissioner? Is this even more substantial a power than that offered to the Commissioner under the federal Act?

  2. Anonymous5:27 pm

    sorry, the above should read 'the powers of a Royal Commission' (not Commissioner!); see page 5 of the Companion Guide to the NSW Bill

  3. It came up but not in that particularity.There was some discussion about the Commissioner's powers to require compliance and sign off at the highest level particularly in pushing the culture change involved.One speaker said the Financial Management and Accountability Act required sign-off from departmental heads on financial management issues and still took a decade or longer to bring about the required change in attitude.I haven't looked specifically at investigative powers, but the IC will need plenty of authority.