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Monday, May 03, 2010

Australian free speech report card

On World Press Freedom Day, News Ltd boss and Australia's Right to Know leader John Hartigan writing in The Australian provides a report card on progress on free speech issues, suggesting  on the surface little has changed in three three years since he accused the Howard administration of being "the most secretive government we've ever had, even in wartime."

However Hartigan says that underneath, the Rudd government has worked hard at change: "It cannot be accused of laziness or inertia on freedom of speech, and we should celebrate this."Hartigan goes on to give the Government a tick on Freedom of Information reform, although the Reform Bill is yet to pass, and as he says,everything depends on implementation. Overall he gives the Federal government a good report card for free speech so far: "The signs are good, but there's still a long way to go, not least because we were coming from so far behind in the first place." And a special gong for Queensland on FOI reform results with NSW poised to get a new regime underway on 1 July.

In my opinion this assessment of the Federal government is on the overly generous side on FOI and other reforms still in the legislative pipeline. On FOI, talked about for the first year or so as a high priority,  there is nothing concrete to show for two and a half years in office except the abolition of conclusive certificates  and the appointment of John McMillan as Information Commissioner Designate.

 The yet to pass Reform Bill is generally good and welcome but equally noteworthy for unexplained omissions, to mention just a few: the failure to extend the Act to the administration of Parliament, the absence of offence provisions for improperly seeking to influence decisions on access and leaving untouched a provision that empowers a minister to decide on access to an agency's documents, no change in time limits that remain as they were almost 30 years ago, proactive publication requirements that lack teeth and apart from disclosure logs and information about statutory appointments leave it to government agencies to decide what should be published "because they know best." I could go on....
I think on results it's a C rather than what sounds like a B from Hartigan mainly awarded on the basis of effort. 

Margaret Simons on The Content Makers raises another issue about report cards:

.. I could not help feeling, as I read Harto’s fine words, what a report card on the role of newspaper executives and editors would look like. What grade would we give News Limited, and other Right to Know Coalition partners, on issues such as invasion of privacy (thus sabotaging any attempt to forestall restrictive privacy legislation). Sadly, when it comes to media campaigns, the moral highground is awfully slippery.

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