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Thursday, May 20, 2010

McKinnon's Open Queensland picture not so pretty after all

Michael McKinnon FOI Editor, Seven Network might be taking back some of those fine words of praise for Premier Bligh and Queensland's approach to open government. In an article in yesterday's Courier Mail under the headline "Sordid deal makes a mockery of open government" (no link- the CM didn't post in online) McKinnon picks up from an article earlier in the week that had raised concern about a cabinet style exemption for the Brisbane City Council. I think giving the Executive Committee of a local council cabinet status and similar protections from disclosure would be a first for local authorities in Australia, but have a vague recollection of something similar in the UK. An extract from the article and the proposal follows.

What a disgrace. Less than a year old, Queensland's bright new world of open government has been stabbed in the back in a sordid deal between two of the state's most powerful politicians. Take a bow, Anna Bligh and Campbell Newman. This week in legislation currently before State Parliament, the Brisbane City Council is set to gain the powerful Cabinet exemption to block information from being released under Right to Information laws. Queensland's Information Commissioner has considered claims by the council for the Cabinet exemption and dismissed any such move as against the public interest. So why extend the Cabinet provision to the council? What damage has the council suffered from RTI? These questions remain unanswered despite attempts by The Courier-Mail and Seven News and unless there is real damage, there cannot be a need for secrecy. Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman says the Cabinet exemption is warranted because the council is a major organisation with 9000 employees and a $3.4 billion budget, which bids and tenders on a commercial playing field and, as such, some decisions must remain in-confidence. Absolute drivel. The council's size and budget require greater, not less scrutiny. Second, any commercial-in-confidence information needs to pass a public interest test before release so the council's interests are not damaged. The umpire is Queensland's highly regarded and well qualified Information Commissioner. The size of government is irrelevant. Ratepayers have a right to know what is happening with roads, sewerage and rates...

The Lord Mayor also argues that without the Cabinet exemption, the council cannot get full and frank advice because of fears of media coverage. Wrong. Public servants are obliged to provide advice and it is precisely the information ratepayers need to judge your performance. The real reason for this grubby deal is the council has attempted to prevent the release of documents surrounding the controversial rate rise for CBD units by arguing the committee that made the decision should be given State Cabinet status. After almost a year-long battle, The Courier-Mail obtained council documents on the parity factor which in 2008 led to rate rises for inner-city units of several hundred per cent, after the independent umpire ruled the documents were not exempt from disclosure. So the council's response is to get a Cabinet exemption to protect the Lord Mayor's political interests. In opposition, Newman sharply criticised the former Labor administration for blocking release of a study into why residents shun the city's buses. At the time, the Liberal lord-mayoral candidate said the council's determination to withhold the results meant they must be bad news. That's right, Lord Mayor: politicians only increase secrecy to cover up the bad news.
The exemption proposed to be added to the Right to Information Act by the City of Brisbane Bill (the provision didn't rate a mention in the Second Reading Speech) would grant( subsection 1) for 10 years after its relevant date exemption from the act where a document has been brought into existence for the consideration of the BCC Establishment and Coordination Committee ; or its disclosure would reveal any consideration of the committee or would otherwise prejudice the confidentiality of committee considerations.

(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to information officially published by decision of the council.

‘(3) Without limiting subsection (1), the following documents are taken to be documents comprised exclusively of exempt information under subsection (1)—
(a) committee submissions; (b) committee briefing notes; (c) committee agendas; d) notes of discussions in committee; (e) committee minutes; (f) committee decisions; (g) a draft of a document mentioned in any (a) to (f).

‘(4) A report of factual or statistical information document mentioned in subsection (3) is exempt under subsection (1) only if— (a) its disclosure would have an effect subsection (1)(b); or (b) it was brought into existence for the consideration committee.
‘(5) In this section— committee means the Establishment and Committee under the City of Brisbane Act 2010 the Establishment and Coordination Committee, constituted from time to time before the commencement this section, under a local law of the council.

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