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Sunday, November 18, 2012

A couple of days out of town and look what happens..

You go off to the National Information Law Conference in Canberra, an otherwise good and useful gathering that FOI reviewer Dr Hawke apparently was too busy to attend, and where it was hard to escape the chill wind of FOI blow-back, in the corridors at least. And, mostly "worst fears" type news emerges while you're pre-occupied:
  • integrity failings that came to light in Queensland and led to the resignation of the Minister for Housing include that the minister, his son and the minister's chief of staff were communicating on official matters using private email addresses; the minister's register of contact with lobbyists released during a Budget estimates committee hearing that he declared"very accurate" did not list extensive contact with his lobbyist son on a range of issues; and according to the opposition the minister's ministerial and electorate diary released under Right to Information laws had been doctored to hide the fact he was continuing as a GP to see patients. "A series of Wednesday afternoons at his Morayfield clinic seeing patients was allegedly erased and replaced with 'electorate office' work...the section on electorate office work was redacted because it was outside the scope of the application."
  • at the end of the week the Courier Mail reported the Attorney General spoke of a hitherto unpublicised review of the RTI act underway as necessary "because too much public scrutiny is scaring people away from becoming politicians." Hold your sides as you read that it is highly unlikely they'll abolish the RTI act, but most of any information anyone will want will be available on the open government website. The extracts from the article are repeated here in case the archive becomes hard to find in future: "Mr Bleijie denied the use of private emails was a tactic to avoid having them released under the RTI Act, but said he used private email at home because he didn't have access to his work email. "I wouldn't envisage that's a systemic problem, no," he said. "Everyone should be careful what they put in writing no matter what communication you use." Mr Bleijie said abolishing the Right to Information Act, which was introduced in 2009 by former premier Anna Bligh, was "highly unlikely" but changes would be introduced as part of his review. Mr Bleijie said Premier Campbell Newman's plan for an open government website posting all non-confidential documents would greatly reduce the need for RTI. He said he also was investigating the cost and scope of the RTI Act, and extending it to capture information within the Office of the Opposition. A discussion paper will be publicly released for comment. "We'll certainly be canvassing the options of whether the current Act in its form can actually be broadened with the open government and, rather than using an RTI for basis, people can go straight on to government website and get the information themselves," he said. "We're intending that most of the information will be available on the government website. "Some of the information, if it's not statistics per se, there might have to be the mechanism remaining that people can still access that information."
  • Bill de Maria formerly of the University of Queensland and a long time sceptic about commitments to transparency took off from there to say FOI laws are useless unless political leaders are fully committed to them. "The best laws aren't worth a row of beans unless..." And there's something in that.
  • with the 30th anniversary of the commencement of the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act on 1 December days away, Jack Waterford of The Canberra Times received a response to a Freedom of Information application 29 years, 11 months and about two weeks after it had first been submitted on 2 December 1982. The application had been deferred, but never heard of again and Waterford subsequently applied in August 2011.  This time PM&C took 18 months to release in full the appendix of a 1981 Royal Commission into a beef substitution racket. "How they fed us donkey burgers"is one thing; how they fed Jack something else in dealing with his FOI application is another. The Canberra Times editorial  draws on what amounts to thirty years in the deep freeze to comment generally on the FOI runaround, delay and impact on citizens and the media of either under-resourcing the function or opposition in most government agencies to releasing information in response to legitimate requests.
  • and in the Sunday Age Farrah Tomazin with an almost audible sigh, welcomes the inaugural, confident and optimistic Victorian Freedom of Information Commissioner who has been given just a couple of weeks to get organised from 1 December to conduct reviews of decisions in place of the agency internal review function, investigate complaints and lead ministers and the public service into a new era of open and transparent government. Tomazin (and Open and Shut) wish her well. From everything credible we see, turning this ship around will be a monumental task. Experience elsewhere suggests it will be resource intensive, and require clout and a combination of carrot and stick that she doesn't appear to have in the tool kit. Ministers in Victoria show no sign of public recognition that in this area they and Ms Bertolini are administering a thirty year old act that is no longer fit for purpose, against a backdrop of the nation's most conservative jurisprudence in some respects, with a well developed capacity at middle and senior public service ranks to distinguish what ministers say and what they really mean. The former Victorian Premier John Cain added "monumental" political interference to the mix.

1 comment:

  1. The objects of the RTI Act Qld clearly state
    1. The primary object of this Act is to give a right of access to
    information in the government’s possession or under the
    government’s control unless, on balance, it is contrary to the
    public interest to give the access.
    2. The Act must be applied and interpreted to further the primary
    OIC Qld currently Globally advertises “Protecting your right to information and privacy
    And previously advertised ‘Valuing and respecting information rights and responsibilities.
    The actions of OIC are not congruent with either the objects or their advertising.
    Add to this the agencies doing their level best to not provide information under any circumstances and the redaction modality – the original document provided in a .pdf file just deleted pages then the second attempt at providing the same pages the document does not have the redaction template, a plain piece of paper with reason for the redaction typed in the corner and then the redaction template on the top of this blank piece of paper.
    Being a whistleblower I have been subjected to massive clean torture and even had the mental health act invoked for being delusional & paranoid.
    The character assassination has been monumental.
    There is also an attitude that there is no expectation the decisions will be appealed either with no money to do so or no time (continuing with multiple simultaneous deadlines.
    Saying the RTI laws unless there is a total commitment to open Transparency and accountable government by all players is ‘not worth a row of beans’ is an understatement.
    The comment of selling a bunch of donkey burgers is apt.
    We as whistle blowers definitely need support and protection.