"It has been long-accepted practice that the parliamentary departments are exempt from FOI," a spokesman for Ms Roxon said yesterday. "The government is currently considering its options to correct this anomaly."
The Greens Senator Rhiannon has fired off a media release this morning expressing concern about what may be coming:
“Public money is what keeps the House of Representative and the Senate functioning and the public have a right to know how that money is spent. Parliament should not be beyond the reach of FOI...“Greater disclosure of the workings of parliament and the work of MPs is critical to a healthy democracy...“The Australian Greens have welcomed the news that the Australian Information Commissioner has found that parliament is subject to FOI laws, and that has been the case for the past decade...“While it is good news that the FOI laws apply to parliament, the information still needs to be made more accessible for the public. All parliamentary department websites should include up to date, easily searchable records of expenditure by MPs,” Senator Rhiannon said.
But of course all it needs is for the major parties simply to vote together to amend the law to put the parliamentary departments beyond the reach of the FOI act. The opposition when in government between 1996 and 2007 did nothing to advance openness, but are yet to say anything on this one.
1.8 The parliamentary departments are currently excluded from the coverage of the FOI Act. In 1979 the Senate Standing Committee expressed the view that the 'parliamentary departments should be encouraged to act as if the legislation were applicable to them'. DP 59 proposed that the parliamentary departments should be brought within the scope of the FOI Act on the basis that documents that warrant protection would be adequately protected by the exemption provisions, for example s 46 (parliamentary privilege). A number of submissions, including that of the Clerk of the Senate, support the proposal. The Department of the Senate has, in any case, always acted as though it were subject to the FOI Act, releasing documents unless they would have fallen within an exemption. In contrast the Department of Parliamentary Reporting Staff considers that it should remain outside the Act because it does not have a public policy role or provide services to the public. It claims that extending the FOI Act to the parliamentary departments could expose them to lengthy and costly legal challenges in respect of material they would claim to be exempt under s 46. The Department of the Parliamentary Librarian also opposes extending the Act to the parliamentary departments for similar reasons. The Review is not persuaded by these arguments. It remains convinced, particularly in light of the experience of the Department of the Senate, that there is no justification for the parliamentary departments to be excluded from the Act and that being subject to the Act will not cause any greater inconvenience for them than is caused to other agencies subject to the Act. Accordingly, it recommends that the parliamentary departments be made subject to the FOI Act.
Let's hope common sense and good public policy prevails.