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Monday, December 10, 2012

Robbo's bright ideas lead government to 1689 and bring Sir Humphrey centre stage

The NSW Opposition leader John Robertson's latest idea is a good one: that interest disclosures by NSW parliamentarians should extend to family members and be posted online. Required disclosures are limited to the member's interests-hence a discounted car given to the wife of the then treasurer didn't need to be included- and are available for inspection on week days during business hours in Macquarie St.The corresponding federal parliament requirement to notify registrable interests includes those "of which the Member is aware of the Member’s spouse and any children wholly or mainly dependent on the Member." Premier O'Farrell responded that the Privileges Committee should take a look-presumably to see if this would have been OK in 1689.

Mr Robertson's previous transparency idea was the bill seeking to give effect to a promise to abolish GIPA application fees made by the now governing Liberal Party before the last election, a bit of an attempt at political points scoring. Predictably it didn't get anywhere. The government voted it down in the Legislative Assembly on 21 November.

The application fee in NSW of $30 (an agency may waive, reduce or refund the fee ) has remained the same since 1989. It is no big deal although if information access is a right, it could be argued that you shouldn't have to pay to exercise it.

However the resumed parliamentary debate on the bill had me wondering whether Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn who wrote the Yes Minister series had snuck into town and were now writing briefing notes to be shared among government members. He wasn't alone but Andrew Cornwell Member for Charlestown takes the Sir Humphrey prize:
In a tight fiscal environment we should think about the effect on, say, a university that is subject to the Government Information (Public Access) Act. Most universities have a full-time employee actively dealing with Government Information (Public Access) Act applications, with the $30 fee, under the current arrangement. Universities are afraid that removal of the $30 fee could result in the number of applications multiplying tenfold or a hundredfold. That would result in decreased services for students and increased costs to universities, and it would affect people's ability to deliver better educational outcomes for our kids. Some applications request information from 20 years ago. People have a right to make Government Information (Public Access) Act applications but they are subject potentially to misuse..
......Imagine the increase in middle management that would result from opening up, carte blanche, Government Information (Public Access) Act applications. Organisations, businesses, government departments and other government agencies that are getting on with delivering services to the community would end up with a reduced number of people on the front line and a bloated middle management dealing with thousands of difficult, potentially vexatious and problematic Government Information (Public Access) Act applications that have no relevance to the actual service delivery of those organisations "
He probably ran out of time before he got to the part that hospital beds and libraries would need to close.

As grave predictions were made about what would transpire if the application fee was abolished, no one mentioned how much in application fees is collected a year. Or the cost in agency time and resources of collecting fees, particularly as the vast majority of agencies in NSW don't allow payment on-line (from the Attorney General's own department: "enclose the $30 application fee (cheques and postal orders made out to 'NSW Department of Attorney General and Justice'). 

My guess is it is way in excess of $30 every time a cheque or money order, for heaven's sake, comes in. But apparently well worth it to keep the hordes at bay, if government speakers are to be believed.

No-one mentioned that agencies are encouraged to provide free of charge information in response to an informal request under the GIPA act if there are no public interest reasons why it should be kept confidential. Or whether the barbarians at this gate are numerous enough that we should rethink this dangerous idea.

And no-one provided a scrap of evidence to support claims that the effect would be negative all round. While advice from the Information Commissioner NSW was cited, the report on a review that commenced in October 2011 on fees and charges has not been published. 

The recent comment by the Australian Information Commissioner that abolishing the application fee had had knock on effects in the Commonwealth jurisdiction but he wouldn't be recommending its reintroduction apparently passed everyone by.

The Greens Jamie Parker on the cross-bench provided a touch of realism and sanity.

As to the rest, not parliament's meatiest debate or finest hour.

Another good idea if Mr Robertson is looking for one, is the same on-line disclosure requirement for payments of entitlements to NSW parliamentarians.The annual report for 2011-2012 of the Department of the Legislative Assembly has been published recently. Annual reports by the Department of Legislative Council appear to have gone missing for the moment at least. The only place you find any information about entitlement payments to  assembly members is in Appendix G of the report - global amounts no details. (While not complete because it does not include payments made by the parliamentary departments, and is not close to real time, detailed disclosures regarding payments to or for federal parliamentarians by the Department of Finance and Deregulation are published online, and more regularly than once a year.)


  1. My Question?
    Why should there be protection against defamation?

    Have experienced defamation at the hands of an Agency staff and Ministerial staff and further aided and abetted by the acting information commissioner and acting assistant information connissioner that contain "scandalous" allegations and to continue to protect against such defamation would be "manifestly unfair" to the applicant and that some of the claims were done to "injure" the applicant's reputation.

  2. Stephen Priest1:39 pm

    Ha! This gave me a good laugh. Keep up the good work - speeches like those given by Andrew Cornwell may prima facie appear convincing. But a few probing questions and it all falls apart.

    Thanks for the interesting insight about how payment is recieved - I hadn't considered that to be one of the issues of imposing a cost for filing FOI requests. Of course, if agencies aren't set up to take payment then that really is additional hassle internally (as well as externally). A part of me always assumed payments for FOI requests would be made centrally - wouldn't that make more sense?