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Monday, March 08, 2010

Freedom of Information and two state elections

With elections in both states on 20 March, transparency in government is receiving different treatment in the campaigns in Tasmania and South Australia.

In Tasmania the incumbent Labor Government can point to significant action on reform with a good (subject to quibbles as you might expect) Right to Know Act scheduled to commence on 1 July that includes a couple of "lead the nation" elements such as the Parliament being covered in respect of administrative functions, and the abolition of all charges for processing applications. While Labor doesn't appear to be making much of this, Matthew Denholm in The Australian acknowledged the Premier's improvements to freedom-of-information laws, whistleblower protection, and the creation of the state's first anti-corruption watchdog as positives in an otherwise ordinary report card. Government action makes this Opposition policy commitment to a complete overhaul of the FOI Act sound just a little out of date. And while this is an area The Greens take seriously its a bit unfortunate that in a long list of policies all they have to say in the only one that appears relevant, Democracy and Participation is "Coming soon."(Update:since, substance has been added to include an impressive list of general commitments.)

In South Australia the Labor Government has shown no interest in broad reform, but Opposition Leader Redmond and the Liberals are running with a policy commitment based on "transparency as the key to restoring confidence in government." The Policy includes commitments on corruption prevention, whistleblower protection, open justice, conduct of members of parliament and Freedom of Information. The specifics in the FOI pitch are well, modest, but at least the issue has been given more than a nod:
"The flow of information from Government during the Rann Government has been appalling. Freedom of Information applications have increased but the level of information released has not. Last year 10% of applications made to the State Government were refused. That is up from 6% in 2000/01. For Freedom of Information to work properly, interference cannot be permitted. Under a Liberal Government advice will be provided to Minister’s Offices but those offices will not be permitted to interfere with timelines for the release of information.

In his 2008/09 Annual Report, the South Australian Ombudsman Richard Bingham, referred to an over-application of the Cabinet exemption rule for FOI applications.

A State Liberal Government will:
• Work with the Ombudsman to enhance this exemption clause to provide greater access to documents which should not necessarily be exempt.
• Remove fees for FOI applications made by journalists if they can be dealt with in less than five hours to provide greater scrutiny of government decisions."

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