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Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Nikita O'Farrell tag doesn't quite do it.

Leader of the NSW Opposition John Robertson introduced the Government Information (Public Access) Amendment (Removal of Application Fee) Bill into parliament last week giving the O'Farrell government the opportunity to deliver on a commitment made in the lead up to the election. Or not, as the case may be. Not a bad political ploy but the bill will languish in the pile that goes nowhere unless the government feels inclined to act.

The bill might prompt someone at the Office of Information Commissioner to dust off the file opened in October 2011 for a public consultation on fees and charges, the purpose of which was  "to see whether the fees and charges provisions help to promote the objects of the GIPA Act to maintain open and accountable government by facilitating access to information at the lowest reasonable cost."  Nothing has been said in the year since, publicly at least.

Mr Robertson apart from rubbing the government's nose in an undelivered promise, had plenty to say about access to government information under the GIPA act, referring to "deliberate" overcharging, and some refusals for questionable reasons of opposition requests, with an agency claim that the board minutes of Infrastructure NSW were Cabinet-in-confidence sounding a bit rich.

While performance information beyond the anecdotal is thin, Mr Robertson's claim that this is "the most secretive government in this State's history" is way off the mark. 

Pick any government that pre-dates Greiner and the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act in 1989, for example, including any from the long list of Labor governments. The late Peter Wilenski described NSW in the late 70's early 80's as a 'bastion of secrecy' and no-one demurred. Throw in the later improved but still barren decade for the open government cause from 1995 where even ministerial media releases weren't posted on the internet during the Carr era so as to avoid leaving discoverable footprints, and pleas from the Ombudsman for reform were routinely ignored. All power to Nathan Rees, still there in Mr Robertson's team, for steps in the right direction in 2008-2009. 

As to this 'killer' line, 'Joe Stalin' might have better suited Mr Robertson's purpose:
You would have got more information out of the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev than you do under Barry O'Farrell in New South Wales. 
(Comparing tyrants isn't all that useful but Wikipedia comments on "The Kruschev Thaw" as allowing some freedom of information in the media, arts and culture that "all together helped liberate minds of millions and changed public consciousness of several generations of people in the Soviet Union." Positively enlightened compared to old Joe.)

With GIPA two and a half years on,18 months of that overlapping O'Farrell's time in office, it's a mixed bag. Journalists tell me generally things are somewhat better than the pre-GIPA days, adding plenty of caveats and exceptions. But a steady stream of individuals pass on to me tales of woe and classic runarounds. Frustration at the long delay in the Office of Information Commissioner in dealing with review applications is also high on the list of grumbles, heightened where the agency goes its merry way despite a recommendation from the OIC that it think again. 

There is a dearth of published information about the operation of the GIPA act, agency compliance with publishing requirements, or performance in dealing with informal and formal requests - another OIC file that needs retrieving and a dusting.

The Government Information (Information Commissioner) Act 2009 requires (s 37), in addition to an annual report on the work and activities of the office, a report from the commissioner on the operation of the GIPA Act generally, across all agencies "as soon as practicable after 30 June in each year."  The act commenced on 1 July 2010. No report has been published to date for the year to 30 June 2011, nor so far for the period ending 30 June this year. I've asked on several occasions where things stand-months ago the commissioner told me she was in editing mode on the 2011 report. The parliamentary presiding officers and the Attorney General are to get a copy-maybe its stuck there?

No one asked about the s 37 report or much at all about agency performance when the NSW parliamentary Committee on the Ombudsman, the Police Integrity Commission and the Crime Commission held a brief meeting (one hour four minutes) in May with the Information and Privacy commissioners to discuss the 2010 and 2011 annual reports on the operation of the office. 

No one asked either about whether the NSW external review model with an ADT and OIC option but limited OIC powers was working as hoped, or could be improved. 

Questions, questions.

Answers, please?

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