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Friday, February 17, 2012

Release of parts of report on Australian Honours

Freedom of Information applicants who contest refusal decisions know the phenomenon well- internal review will probably get you something more (in 44% of cases according to agency figures in the latest Commonwealth annual report), and faced with an applicant prepared to box on further, the dribble effect where on second or third thought an agency decides some previously exempt matter, often innocuous in any event, is what it is and no state secret. Then again it is by no means an ironclad rule.

The Official Secretary Office of the Governor General Stephen Brady may have been justified when he bridled at the suggestion during Senate Estimates on Monday that anything of the sort was a reasonable interpretation of the decision to publish some information this week about the Order of Australia in the form of extracts from a review completed in June 2011. The reason for the lapse of time was that the Council for the Order of Australia had only just had time to give the report serious consideration and decided parts should be released. But  it is clear that there is some new thinking underway at Yarralumla about transparency

Brady rejected Senator Ronaldson's attempt to link the decision to publish and  the impending Administrative Appeals Tribunal hearing of the Kline case on 27 February. He did say direct legal costs to the Office to date were $34,000.

That hearing is to focus on the interpretation of section 6A which limits the application of the FOI act to the Office to documents that relate to matters of an administrative nature. Karen Kline is seeking among other things, manuals, policy guidelines and criteria related to the administration of awards.

Not that there hasn't been a dribble of a fashion since this began two years ago. The initial response to Kline was that documents regarding Honours weren't accessible because the Council was not an agency subject to the act. When challenged it was later accepted that documents held by the Honours secretariat were held by staff at Government House who are employed under s 13 of the Governor General Act 1974, and are within scope where they relate to matters of an administrative nature. Next stop was the Australian Information Commission where commissioner Popple decided that the documents requested were not of this kind. Now for the AAT. I understand Kline has heavyweight representation this time in the form of Tom Brennan.

If you are interested in what has been released of the Bonsey Report - historical information including some new statistics about past awards, and international comparisons of the system - it's not up in lights on the home page. But of course anyone interested would know to look at the Disclosure log. To save you the trouble, voila, Order of Australia Review 2011

Here is part of Mr Brady's opening statement at the Estimates hearing-the Q&A is still worth a read if you are a buff:

Today I am pleased to report that the Council for the Order of Australia met last Thursday, 9 February, to consider the Bonsey report. At that meeting the council agreed to the principles of transparency and accountability in the instances which did not compromise the necessary confidentiality of the honours system. The council agreed to the publication of the current and future empowering documents on the relevant websites. The council agreed that aspects of the Bonsey review be placed on the Governor-General's website, noting that those parts that are not made public are currently under review. In the interests of placing in the public domain as much information as possible the council decided that the secretariat should publish on our website sections of the summary, the background, the terms of reference of the review, the historical and international context and a detailed overview of our honours system and cumulative totals by gender and level of awards from 1975 to 2010. The council agreed that as formal statements of policy are adopted by council, they too will be published on the Governor-General's website. In addition to my annual reports to parliament, a five-yearly publication of a report on the order and the work of the council and the secretariat, to be accompanied by statistical analysis drawing attention to interesting comparisons and emerging trends, will also now be done and made public. A flow chart and time lines outlining the order of Australia processes will be published to better inform public understanding.
I am also pleased to announce that the council agreed to form a subcommittee to consider, amongst other issues, equity of access, how to engage the community to increase education and awareness of the order, and the ease of nominations, potentially tapping into the better use of technology. Many of these matters will then fall to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to take forward as it is in charge of the promotion of the honours system.These decisions I have announced, made by the council last week under the distinguished chairmanship of Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, are aimed at strengthening the Order of Australia. The Bonsey review showed that the system, benchmarked with like-minded countries, is world's best. This system is not perfect but the Bonsey review found it to be well-suited to Australia's democratic and egalitarian values, that the composition and deliberative processes of the council are well-suited to exercising the judgments required and that the system does inherently require, at its core, confidentiality and the protections currently afforded by the law. I trust this statement assists the committee.

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