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Monday, July 13, 2009

Back in touch.

I'm in Darwin catching up, courtesy of internet access, on developments of a week spent in very remote locations. For me, items of particular interest include:

James Massola in The Canberra Times, brought together the key elements of the open government reforms now moving on a number of fronts in Canberra, and included a well deserved wrap for what the four volunteers behind Open Australia have managed to do with parliamentary information. All very positive. Massola should have included a mention of the Australian Law Reform Commission review of secrecy provisions in Federal laws, due for final report later in the year, which is another plus piece in this picture. Meanwhile as Shadow Attorney General George Brandis pointed out, we still have zilch to show on Freedom of Information legislative reform, described by then responsible minister John Faulkner, as a "high priority" for the Rudd Government (elected 20 months ago).

Reality about accountability strikes when you read Warren Read's account in Online Opinion of the 15 year fight, now settled, between Defence and Russell Vance which has cost taxpayers $15 million, with limited parliamentary or media attention. And no-one's responsible. Ditto for security failings at Sydney Airport.

And reality double take to read on that the Therapeutic Goods Administration only has out-of-date and incomplete information about whether sunscreen approved for sale contains engineered material suspected of causing damage to human cells and DNA. It only cost Lee Rhiannon of The NSW Greens $2000 instead of $4000 to find this out however, after arguing for a public interest discount!

Matthew Moore in the Sydney Morning Herald finally obtained information from the NSW Food Authority about lax approaches to regulatory inspections of compliance with food safety standards by some NSW local councils, with the Authority somewhat belatedly recognising through disclosure, that it's more than "name and shame": there are major public health benefits in opening up the inspection system to public scrutiny. A tick for NSW but as to the rest of the country.....

The debate about publication of school performance information in NSW continues following the remarkable attempt by The Greens and the Opposition to put newspapers and magazines in the dock it they dare to play around with published data to create "simplistic league tables". I don't think this has occurred too often but I'm with former Treasurer Michael Costa, now writing for The Australian:
".. much union criticism of so-called league tables misses the central issue: parents and taxpayers have a right to know how their children and their schools are performing. The unions claim the league tables "are unfair and simplistic" and they could "stigmatise schools and lead to unfair comparisons". Any statistical data can be misused. That is not an argument against collection of the data or publication of the data."
This is the same Michael Costa who in the NSW Legislative Council for years made an art form of rude obfuscation and refusal to respond to legitimate questions from the other side of the chamber about aspects of government performance. Ah, you've gotta love 'em.

Good use by John Warhurst of ANU writing in The Canberra Times, of information dug out of the Federal Government on publicly funded travel by former parliamentarians by the Sydney Morning Herald, to give new life to the debate about the generosity of the Life Gold Pass scheme.

Fiona Hudson in the Herald Sun obtained some information about taxpayer-funded extras fitted to 126 vehicles supplied to Victorian members of parliament but I'd love to see the reasoning for the following knockbacks. Hope she challenges:

"(The) Department of Treasury and Finance staff ruled the cost of the extras was a "trade secret", and refused to release a breakdown of spending. The department also refused to identify which politicians had ordered which extras."

More as the week goes on.

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