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Friday, August 14, 2009

Conclusive certificates going, going almost gone

The Senate passed the Freedom of Information (Removal of Conclusive Certificates and Other Measures) Bill yesterday, without amendment, so only the House of Representatives to go and that will be routine business.

Senator Ludlam (Australian Greens-WA) moved several amendments but only the Greens and Senator Xenophon supported them, the Opposition siding with the Government. The amendments proposed related to the provision to give a blanket exemption to documents held by a minister received from an intelligence agency, which the Government justified as correcting an anomaly by bringing such documents in line with a long-standing exemption for documents of this kind held by an agency. Intelligence agencies have been
outside the scope of the Act since inception, which also troubled Senator Ludlam.

Blanket exemptions and exclusions of agencies from the operation of the Act are in principle hard to justify, something Senator Ludwig acknowledged:
"The government does recognise, though, if we go to the nub of the issue, that strong justification is needed to support wholly excluding agencies or classes of documents from the operation of the FOI Act. A total exclusion will be justified where the functions of the agency would be compromised by right of public access to information they hold. That is clearly the case for intelligence agencies."
Perhaps when the entire act gets revisited (within two years after the broader reform bill, yet to be introduced, makes it through Parliament, the Minister told Senator Ludlam) we might have a closer look at how the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service and the CIA manage to cope without functions being compromised even though they are covered by their access to government information legislation.

Shadow Attorney General Brandis wins the chutzpah award for his claim that "The coalition’s commitment to open, responsible government is well known" but he did have a point that the Howard Government had issued few (around 14 from memory) conclusive certificates compared to earlier ALP governments where, anecdotally they stopped counting after three figures.

None of the other points made in submissions on the Bill rated a mention in debate.

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