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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Disclosure of former MPs names and expenses in the public interest.

In a case before Western Australian Information Commissioner Sven Bluemmel involving the Department of Premier and Cabinet, an unnamed former member of state parliament, V,  one of 33 who objected to the disclosure of their names (six didn't) in a document detailing the type and amount of expenses paid, has failed in a bid to argue that disclosure would not be in the public interest.

The Commissioner [22] summarised V's arguments as follows 
  • The agency has confused what is in the public interest and what may interest the public and has applied a faulty test in deciding that the public interest in the privacy of individuals is overridden in this case.
  • The public and the media would be interested in the disputed information so that people can complain about the inflated remuneration of politicians, although the justification at the time the benefits were granted was that they were compensation for the inadequacy of MPs’ pay. Since MPs now supposedly have adequate remuneration, those benefits have now been abolished.
  • The agency’s submissions that the travel entitlements in the disputed document have arisen only by virtue of the third parties’ public role and the determination of the Salaries and Allowances Tribunal and that disclosure would allow a robust debate of the merits of such entitlements are arguments for disclosing the quantum of payment and are not arguments for disclosing personal information. Moreover, since the benefit is now abolished, there is no longer any need for robust public debate.
  • There is no public interest in knowing which former MPs received travel benefits as those individuals are not standing for public office and electors have no decisions to make about them.
  • The only consequence of disclosing the relevant names is that those persons will be subject to another newspaper article and the usual abuse that follows from that.
23. V advises that, although V ceased to be an MP some years ago, V is still subject to public recognition and both V and V’s family have paid a huge penalty for V’s having held public office, including the associated publicity. V submits that disclosure of the disputed information would renew that unwanted publicity and that the financial details already disclosed adequately satisfy the public interest, if not public curiosity.
The Commissioner acknowledged V's right to privacy, but decided this was outweighed by the public interests in disclosure, noting information about the way in which a government spends public money is a matter of legitimate public interest and is not simply a matter of public curiosity and that the disclosure of the disputed information is not likely to single V out from V’s peers in any way, such that V would be subject to greater publicity. Public interests in favour of disclosure included the general right of access to documents set out in s.10 of the FOI Act, the accountability of government for the expenditure of public funds, including the payment of benefits from the public purse, and a public interest in the community being informed of how taxpayer funds are spent.  The fact that the relevant travel benefits have now been abolished did not affect those particular public interests.
  1. Nor do I consider that disclosure should be limited solely to quantum. In my opinion, the identities of persons receiving entitlements for performing or having performed functions on behalf of the public of Western Australia – as well as the amounts of those entitlements – are matters of legitimate public interest.
  2. I do not accept the complainant’s submission that there is no longer any need for robust debate on the issue of travel benefits. Section 3(1) of the FOI Act provides that the objects of the Act are to:
(a) enable the public to participate more effectively in governing the State; and
(b) make the persons and bodies that are responsible for State and local government more accountable to the public.” 
The provision of the disputed information would assist in informing the public how and to whom taxpayer funds are distributed, and provide a basis for discussion on the general and on-going subject of MPs’ benefits and remuneration. In my view, disclosure of that kind of information would further the objects of the FOI Act.

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