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Friday, March 19, 2010

NSW laws not to commence "soon"

NSW Attorney General John Hatzistergos had more to say when asked a Dorothy Dixer about Freedom of Information reform in Parliament yesterday  (Hansard 12). Without actually mentioning a date its clear from his remarks that the Government Information (Public Access) Act can't start anytime soon, with the words used to date, "in the near future" and "early 2010," now  replaced with "later this year."

The reasons given were matters raised in two NSW Law Reform Commission reports also tabled on which the Attorney said it was important to "consult widely and publicly on the issues raised." One of these reports was completed in December, the other in February, so urgency isn't apparent.

From a quick read of the reports there are a couple of issues that need to be addressed before commencement ( the structure of the Information Commissioner Office with integration of privacy through a Privacy Division headed by a Privacy Commissioner with statutory functions, not exactly a new idea and the model floated by the Commonwealth in its reform package in March 2009; and the inclusion in privacy law of two different processes for dealing with amendment of records, obviously an error), but much of  the rest as the Commission indicates, could wait until the statutory review of the GIPA Act required by the law itself down the track. As to identified problems in NSW privacy laws, those the Commission notes and many it doesn't have been apparent for the last 10 years. Here is what the Attorney said: 
Report 125, entitled "Offices of the Information and Privacy Commissioners", makes 18 recommendations dealing with the institutional structure of the Privacy Commission and the Information Commission. Significantly, the report recommends that there be one commission headed by the Information Commissioner that contains a privacy division headed by the Commissioner for Privacy, who would also be a deputy information commissioner. Report 126, entitled "Access to Personal Information", makes 17 recommendations dealing with access to personal information under the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act 1998 and the new legislation. Significantly, it recommends that various regimes dealing with access and amendments to personal information should be consolidated so that there is one clear avenue for people to gain access to and to amend their personal information. I am tabling the reports in advance of a detailed Government response to each recommendation because it is important that we consult widely and publicly on the issues raised.

One important issue that the Law Reform Commission considered was models for integrating the Privacy Commission's and the Information Commission's offices and functions. The Law Reform Commission looked at models in other jurisdictions and put forward a recommended model. It is proper that I make the report public and consult with the incoming Information Commissioner on the model prior to committing to one option or another. It is intended that legislation be introduced later this year dealing with some key recommendations and more will probably be introduced in the following months.
NSW Greens Lee Rhiannon MP Lee Rhiannon criticised the delay in commencing laws passed by Parliament in June 2009, in appointing a permanent Information Commissioner and in educating the public about the new scheme.
"Since Nathan Rees' departure as Premier there has been not a word from Kristina Keneally on this important area of government accountability, with the public left to use the shoddy old laws. "This legislation is too important to sit idle. It was to be the sign of the NSW government entering a new era of openness, but change has stalled. "The new FOI laws require the proactive publications by government agencies of information on the web. "Without these new laws the lights will be continue to be kept dimmed on the operation of government," Ms Rhiannon said.

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