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Monday, September 20, 2010

NSW Premier fronts questioning about transparency and integrity

NSW Premier Kristina Keneally faced questioning first up in a Budget Estimates hearing last week about her views on accountability, transparency, integrity and standards raised by Ombudsman Bruce Barbour recently. The Premier said she agreed with the Ombudsman's comments that these values are important to any democracy, and that for democracy to function at its best, its elected members must uphold them as she does in her actions, and as she expects members of the Government to do so. The Premier said she was not surprised that the Ombudsman advocates the importance of these principles:
"However, I was surprised that he chose to make such comments in a public forum, given that he has met with me in my capacity as Premier and has not raised those particular views with me directly...I.. respect that he holds a position in which, if he seeks to do so, he can provide that full, frank and fearless advice directly to the Government. To date he has not done that."
From the transcript it sounds as if the Premier and Ombudsman have met once in the 10 months since she came to office.There was no admission of any shortcomings in this area and nothing to indicate government interest in the Ombudsman's call for legislated standards for the public sector and for re-examination of the integrity framework. The Premier rejected the suggestion she should follow up his concerns with the Ombudsman, and defended her personal record:
"Let me remind you that in circumstances where I have made a determination that Ministers in my Cabinet have not acted with the integrity that I expect I have sought and received their resignation. When I held the portfolio of Planning I instituted a series of reforms and changes in that portfolio that put in place greater transparency, particularly around the issues of political donations, particularly around depoliticising the Planning portfolio. So if you would like to make a characterisation that I am not acting with initiative I would invite you to examine the entirety of my ministerial record."
There were questions to the head of the Premier's department about the register of minister's interests, something he admitted he didn't look at regularly if at all. After a little scrambling it turned out one of his deputies has it under control. No one raised the question why the GIPA act confers an absolute presumption of a public interest against disclosure of anything in the register.

Later in the hearing,The Greens Dr John Kaye raised a concern about cabinet documents and the operation of GIPA, but ran out of details when more was needed:

..I am getting reports from a variety of groups and individuals that when people lodge GIPA applications they still come up against a Cabinet-in-confidence barrier or, worse, the barrier that a document was being prepared for future submission to Cabinet and therefore not available under GIPA. The story coming back is that this is being done deliberately to maintain a barrier against accountability. It is being used unreasonably and adversely. Premier, would you give consideration to developing a separate test that challenges the Cabinet-in-confidence test when documents clearly do not require that degree of secrecy?

Ms KRISTINA KENEALLY: Let me flag that the freedom of information Act was only recently replaced by, as you term it, GIPA—the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 on 1 July this year. You are correct when you note that it encourages the proactive release of information. It provides that all government information should be accessible to the public unless there is an overriding public interest against disclosure. The Office of the Information Commissioner was established last year to ensure agencies understand and comply with the new  GIPA legislation and a permanent Information Commissioner, Mrs Deirdre O'Donnell, was appointed in April this year.These reforms underline the Government's commitment to open and accountable government. We have a publication guide, which sets out the information that the department holds and ways it can be accessed. The Act itself, which falls within the Attorney's portfolio, will, of course, through normal processes, be reviewed. Issues such as you have raised can be considered within that review process. But if your question is will we completely remove Cabinet-in-confidence provisions, no, we will not.

Dr JOHN KAYE: No, that was not my question. I will rephrase my question to make it clearer. Are you aware of allegations that there is a continuing tendency within the public service to declare documents Cabinet-in-confidence when there is no reason to and when under any reasonable test of the public interest those documents ought to be in the public domain?

Ms KRISTINA KENEALLY: Do you have a specific example?

Dr JOHN KAYE: Yes, I can give you one example. It has been argued that documents in respect of the Metropolitan Water Plan, I think this is correct—

Ms KRISTINA KENEALLY: You think it is correct?

Dr JOHN KAYE: I am trying to remember. There were two cases and in my own mind I am notabsolutely clear which was which. I think this is a specific example where the Metropolitan Water Plan went to Cabinet and, therefore, documents prepared in respect to the Metropolitan Water Plan were exempted from the GIPA Act.

Ms KRISTINA KENEALLY: Dr Kaye, with all respect, it is difficult for me to answer a question that you so clearly thought about except you have been unable to provide me with what you are certain are specific examples of the problem you are describing. I am more than happy if there are specific examples that you can provide to me to have a look at those.
At this point Dr Kaye turned his mind to other things...

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:00 am

    > "No one raised the question why the GIPA act confers an absolute presumption of a public interest against disclosure of anything in the register."

    This could be something for the Committee on the Office of the Ombudsman and the Police Integrity Commission to look at in its review of GIPA.