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Monday, February 15, 2010

FOI Reform half a loaf, but needed soon, so grab a few extra slices

That's in essence what I told the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee hearing on the Freedom Of Information Reform bills this morning, in my appearance by telephone. I used my opening remarks to welcome the legislation as a step in the direction of more open and accountable government. Many points made in the various submissions to the Committee had previously been raised in response to the Exposure Draft a year ago, with little reaction from the government and even less explanation, so it was a pity the opportunity for discussion and debate about best practice had been missed. With the Committee with a month to report, and an election somewhere down the track this year, it was now important that the legislation pass, with the broader, wider reforms perhaps left for another day. However while grabbing the half a loaf on offer, the Committee should be interested in a couple of additional slices.

Like bolstering the proposed Information Publication Scheme by an amendment to specify in the legislation some additional categories of information to be published on the web, and/or increasing the Information Commissioner's powers from largely advisory to require certain information be published, a departure from the proposed scheme that leaves an agency, beyond a very low - set minimum, to decide for itself what is published.
Filling the gap in the accountability and transparency framework by bringing the parliamentary departments within the scope of the act.

There wasn't now time to do what should be done to closely re-examine and question the blanket and partial exclusions from the act in Schedule 2, and the exemptions. However the unfortunate backwards step from the Exposure Draft to the virtual status quo on the business affairs exemption, and the failure to list "frankness and candour" as an irrelevant consideration for policy advice and related documents, should both be addressed.It was also too late to unravel the proposed fees and charges for access, but we would not be doing much to reduce cost as a disincentive by going down the proposed path in the bill to abolish application fees and retain charges.

The culture change that everyone hopes to see sometime would be assisted by removing powers in Section 23 of the FOI Act that authorise a minister to make a decision on an application for agency documents, and by picking up on the lead of Queensland, NSW and Tasmania by including offence provisions particularly for improper interference in decision making.

And on review arrangements an agency or Minister shouldn't have a second bite by having a right to review of an Information Commissioner decision on the basis it was wrong, as this opened up too much scope for delay and stalling tactics.

Senators Ludlam, Ryan and Cameron had questions, but the transcript when available will reveal what transpired, and the evidence and questioning of other witnesses. A note in passing- no-one asked me a question about the Parliament coming under the FOI Act.

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