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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Surprise, as parliament within FOI scope all along

Well it turns out I have been off the money for years, bemoaning the fact that the Department of the Senate, the Department of the House of Representatives and the Department of Parliamentary Services, the three agencies that service the parliament and parliamentarians, are outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. And arguing that they should be brought within scope as recommended by the Australian Law Reform Commission in 1995.

The departments have never been listed in any annual report on the operation of the act. No-one ever suggested I was off-target.

Bill Hoffman of the Sunshine Coast daily as recently as March was being rebuffed in attempts to get hold of documents concerning Peter Slipper's time as deputy speaker, the Sergeant at Arms as head of the House department telling him that  details of expenditure for services provided to individual members would not be released. 

But out of the blue, revised Guidelines today by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner include this paragraph for the first time (Part 2-Scope)
2.5 Three of the Commonwealth Parliamentary departments (the Department of the House of Representatives, the Department of the Senate and the Department of Parliamentary Services) are subject to the FOI Act because they were established by, or in accordance with, s 54 of the Parliamentary Service Act 1999 and they have not been exempted. The fourth Commonwealth Parliamentary department, the Parliamentary Budget Office, is exempted because it is expressly deemed not to be a prescribed authority (s 7(1) and Division 1 of Part I of Schedule 2.)
No explanation, but perhaps the penny was dropping as legislation for the establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office developed to insistent cries that it be specifically exempt from FOI. Of course legislation to this effect was necessary because a parliamentary department otherwise was a prescribed authority, a body corporate established for a public purpose by, or in accordance with the provisions of an enactment, and subject to the FOI act unless otherwise exempt.

As mentioned in previous posts these departments pay in addition to entitlements paid by the Department of Finance and Administration, salaries and electorate allowances of parliamentarians, additional salaries of parliamentary office holders, superannuation entitlements, resettlement allowance payments, and for services and facilities to support parliamentarians in Parliament House including the cost of office accommodation, computing and other equipment, telephones, newspapers and stationery. 

Of particular current interest is what documents held by the departments might reveal about payments to or on behalf of office holders such as the speaker, including perhaps travel, entertainment and other services when on business connected to that office.

And what other hitherto tightly held documents about expenditure for and on behalf of all other members and senators might reveal.

The FOI applicant queue starts here. 

If parliamentary leaders or Special Minister of State Gary Gray had been ahead of the game they might have headed all this off ages ago with moves toward pro-active disclosure along the lines advocated here rather than sitting on most Belcher committee recommendations for years. The Scottish model -on-line, comprehensive, searchable records of expenditure by parliamentarians still beckons.

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