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Monday, April 12, 2010

What if, on balance, the public interest always determined the outcome?

There's plenty of scope for "what if" thinking about government openness and transparency. John Hartigan, chairman and chief executive of News Limited, writes in What if? edited by Peta Seaton to be published on 16 April, about cabinet documents and the blanket secrecy afforded them under our freedom of information laws. I'm afraid it's all over red rover on this sort of idea in the current round of FOI reforms, and "what if all exemptions included a public interest test" is an even better question. In this Weekend Australian article on the book by Michael  Stutchbury, Hartigan concedes
"that cabinet should be a safe place where ministers can frankly and secretly speak their minds. But he also says there is no excuse for Australia's blanket cabinet secrecy. Until recently in Queensland, bureaucrats could routinely wheel trolley-loads of documents into the cabinet room just to exempt them from Freedom of Information laws. Hartigan says the public's right to know should trump cabinet secrecy in cases such as this newspaper's publication of leaked documents revealing security weaknesses at Australian airports. The solution, he suggests, is provided by New Zealand's Official Information Act, which has encouraged cabinet papers and minutes to be routinely released unless there is a good reason, such as national security, not to. "While the New Zealand model presumes openness from the outset, ours still presumes that cabinet information is always secret. It's subtle, but it's the wrong way round," Hartigan writes.

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