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Monday, March 14, 2011

South Australia stuck in pre-reform FOI era

If anyone can get beyond this page to the South Australian Hansard they might give me the link to debate in the state parliament on 10 March on an unsuccessful Opposition move to allow five hours free processing for journalist Freedom of Information applications. The Advertiser (no link available) reported next day:

Opposition frontbencher Vickie Chapman said the reform was one of many, including establishing an independent commission against corruption, needed for full scrutiny of government. "The public should have access to the records of government. After all, that is what they are there for - to serve the people," she told Parliament yesterday. "One of the very able arms of the community which is skilled at ensuring secrets are made public is the media. "At present, they are able to apply, but it is financially onerous, and therefore we consider that, with the cap of five hours, it is reasonable for them to have access." She said the proportion of FoI requests rejected by the Government had increased from 6 per cent to 10 per cent since Premier Mike Rann claimed power in 2002.
The Government claimed its commitment to releasing Cabinet documents after 10 years, rather than the 30-year federal lag, was proof it acknowledged the importance of public disclosure. Newly elevated minister Tom Kenyon yesterday claimed there was "no logical reason" for fees to be waived on FoI applications lodged by journalists and processed in less than five hours. Mr Rann had made changes to ensure parliamentarians could access a "generous deal" of up to $1000 in free applications, Mr Kenyon said. "The argument put forward is that professional journalists are responsible for keeping the public informed. Attention-grabbing headlines and bold claims seem to be the important tools of trade rather than providing the public with factual information," he said. "This Government can see no logical reason why it should agree to this Bill."

In an editorial (no link available either) the paper said
South Australia has a poor record of disclosure - its courts are notorious for handing down suppression orders. The importance of public disclosure has become political, rather than a principle. Every opposition demands it, while every government attempts to avoid it. It must be cherished, promoted and encouraged as an intrinsic good. If democracy is supported in a bi-partisan manner, so must public disclosure... The Government may, if it were willing to take the chance, discover that showing the public it really means business by committing to increased disclosure, may receive a political dividend. They promised after the state election to reconnect and listen to voters. Few feel that has really happened, and as a result have been further disenfranchised. Governments report to the public once every four years for elections, and that requirement often sparks an unfamiliar level of interest in what voters want and think. The mainstream news media - both private and public - report to the public every day. It is only reasonable, in the interest of the public, they be permitted to do so without unnecessary encumbrance.
Given the state is one of the laggards on FOI reform generally, a proposal for reduced charges for journalists seems a long way short of the mark, although a wider reform agenda seems foredoomed. I recall Michael McKinnon of the Seven Network saying some time ago South Australia was a priority for the Australia's Right to Know coalition. Minister Kenyon  is for one not well disposed.

Any sightings?

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