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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hawke FOI review report lands in Attorney General's in- tray

The Hawke report on the operation of the Freedom of Information Act and the Australian Information Commissioner Act was due to be handed to Attorney General Dreyfus today and must be tabled in Parliament within 15 sitting days. With Parliament resuming on 14 May the report will be tabled before Parliament rises again for the winter recess at the end of June.

Maybe pleasant surprises lie ahead, like a forthright account of what needs to happen to achieve the lofty aims of the legislation. We'll wait to see.

But the review process - written submissions, then leave it all to us folks - was straight out of an out of date textbook. Magnified by the fact it is about the operation of legislation that has as an object "the promotion of Australia's representative democracy by increasing public participation in Government processes." 

The Department straight-batted queries regarding adequacy of the process in an answer to a question taken on notice from Senator Rhiannon PDF 134KB

As at 12 February more than 75 submissions had been received. Sixty nine have been published overall - 32 from government or government related agencies or individuals.

I have the impression Dr Hawke was almost entirely in the hands of the public service throughout the six month review, with AGD providing whatever support he needed.

Dr Hawke didn't appear to venture far from the Parliamentary Triangle here but went to NZ during the review wearing another hat and made some FOI contacts I understand.

Oh, I had one 40 minute phone conversation with him just after submissions closed. 

More than most I expect and more than anyone I heard from except Rick Snell who had about the same. 

Roll on June...

Integrity awards-parliamentarians step forward

You would like to think they will be inundated with nominations and find it hard to separate winners from a long list of worthy recipients.

The Accountability Roundtable is looking for members of Parliament "worthy of recognition for their commitment to honest, transparent and accountable government and the parliamentary system."

The awards honour two former Senators, John Button and Alan Missen. The Button Award is for Ministers and Shadow Ministers and their Parliamentary Secretaries and the Missen awards for all other members of the Commonwealth Parliament.  They were first awarded in 2010, respectively to the Defence Minister Senator John Faulkner and now retired backbencher Petro Georgiou.

Some musing over the possibilities in 2010. The Roundtable received 17 nominations that year

Your thoughts this time?

Nominations close 6 June and should be sent to Accountability Roundtable Chairman Tim Smith QC: or 

The criteria for both awards are the same:
The award winner’s behaviour should be exemplary and reflect the best traditions of political service to the community.
The award winner will, in the relevant period, have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to the public interest in the performance of his or her role with
Political Courage, in one or more of the following areas
  • Supporting the principles and practice of transparent and accountable government
  • Contributing effectively and constructively to parliamentary debate, committee deliberations and/or policy development in a way that promotes and/or supports good parliamentary practice and the institution of parliament.
  • Pursuing a change in government policy or practice whether generally or in response to a constituency issue or injustice.
  • Protecting peoples’ political and civil rights

Monday, April 29, 2013

Transparency silos not unique to Australian CSOs

Australia isn't the only place faced with the situation that groups and activists beaver away in civil society silos, separately seeking to advance various transparency and accountability issues without much in the way of dialogue or joint effort on common high order goals.

Martin Tisne at Open Up had also written about this in February after attending a meeting in Poland and again in April, offering these reasons why working together had proved difficult for CSOs in the UK:
(1) Each community of practice (whether budget groups, freedom of information, open data groups, extractives’ groups) has its own language, discourse, way of working, basic reason for why they are doing this in the first place (e.g. whether to deepen democracy or decrease poverty) which can be a big barrier to doing business together.
(2) NGOs are in competition for limited resources: why should civil society groups make an effort to coordinate when they will ultimately be competing against each other for a limited pot of funding?
(3) Coordination, partnership is hard work! Why do it unless there is a clear pay-off at the end? With limited resources to start with, why should CSOs work and partner together, when they could forge ahead with their own agenda (perhaps faster)?
I think it's a version of (3) here, more than anything else - limited resources, organisations stretched and forced to make hard choices about the use of time leaving little for the big picture, and pre-occupied with individual agendas. And of course for anyone who puts a hand up, that coalition formation and development is hard work.

Tisne says that in the UK the "OGP is playing a huge role in bringing together a broad group of civil society groups working on opengov that had previously never met nor worked on a common platform."

Hopefully that could be the way things go here - in the lead up, or when we get to "yes" on the OGP.

Callinan CMC report uses blunderbuss on RTI act when spit and polish might do

The Executive Summary of the Callinan Report on the review of the Queensland Crime and Misconduct  Commission, when released a few weeks ago, included what seemed to be an extraordinary, broad recommendation that the Right to Information Act be amended to restrict agencies and the Information Commissioner from being required to give reasons for refusal to release documents for a period of nine months after an application was received.

It is far from the most important issue raised in the report, which takes the stick to what it calls "the integrity industry." I'll leave those to others. 

But the lack of clarity in the RTI act recommendation, and the absence of information about other options considered, and the lack of an explanation for it in the Summary meant the publication of the report itself was awaited with interest.

The (redacted) full report has now appeared in Parliament tabled papers 2448-2452. (Hats off to the Queensland Parliament, I think the only Australian jurisdiction where tabled papers are published promptly on-line.) It is also here (Redacted) Full report (in a very large pdf).

Rather than a full, deep analysis, the review's examination of the RTI issue is limited to one page (113) in 248.

The given as far as Callinan is concerned is that the need for confidentiality regarding any fact of, or identity of a person who is subject of a complaint or of an investigation, or interest in a matter before the CMC is absolute.

The report proceeds from there seemingly, conflating two issues. One, how information of this kind might be safeguarded by an exemption. Two, the dangers posed to confidentiality if a decision to refuse access requires reasons to be given.

The report summarises the RTI problem thus:
At present the relevant agency, and on review the information Commissioner must give reasons for its decision whether to give access to documents which may in effect disclose that a matter is under investigation by the CMC and which would probably enable identification of the subject matter and the person who is the subject of investigation.
No examples are given to support the contention that the act isn't working in practice and there is no reference to the matter being raised in submissions.

As to what to do about the problem, the report says it would be possible to add to the categories of exempt information in the RTI act, information that would tend to identify the existence, nature or subject of a complaint to or investigation by the CMC. But
"we think it would be still possible for resourceful organisations to ascertain by process of elimination that a document has not been disclosed because it is related to a CMC  complaint or investigation.
From there it makes the jump to this radical solution (no emphasis added, the report underlines "any"):
"In order to prevent this possibility most effectively it would be better that agencies and the commissioner simply not be required to give any reasons in any case for a period of nine months of the application unless the Supreme Court for compelling reasons of public interest orders otherwise. Unless the discretion of the Information Commissioner not to give reasons is a general one and not in respect of the CMC alone the objective of confidentiality would be defeated..."
No new exemption is proposed. Simply(!) that the requirement for reasons for refusal of access by an agency or the Information Commissioner in "any case" be dispensed with for nine months.

There is no mention in this discussion of the existing section 55 of the Right to Information Act which provides that nothing in the act "requires an agency or Minister to give information as to the existence or non-existence of a document containing prescribed information."  Or reference to the possibility, that if this isn't capable of doing the job, of tweaking, with modifications drawn from other jurisdictions which apparently aren't struggling unsuccessfully to protect information of the kind Callinan wants protected.

The report recommends the same "give no reasons" provision should be included in the Ombudsman Act so that the Ombudsman would not have to explain a decision to refuse to intervene in a matter because it was the subject of a CMC complaint or investigation.

This part of the report concludes 

Without these (protections), as appears from this and other chapters of this Report, the requirement of secrecy is a hollow protection easily evaded.

For mine, the case for the recommendation that no reasons should be given in any RTI case isn't well argued; the report doesn't consider less radical alternatives; and the recommendation if accepted would turn on its head the general well established principle that an administrative decision-maker has an obligation to give reasons. It would mean that public servants have to be taken at their word that there are good reasons for refusal of access which can't be scrutinised or effectively challenged for nine months, unless through Supreme Court proceedings.

The blunderbuss should be put back on the shelf, replaced by something more suited to polishing rather than blasting the existing RTI framework, where this is necessary.

Quite apart from reasons being more than an RTI issue through a general requirement in the Queensland Judiciary Act, the Queensland Ombudsman's Good Decisions Guide (pdf) (page 10) advocates
giving reasons is good administrative practice in that it promotes fairness, transparency and accountability in decision-making.
Recommendation 10 in the review report reads:

Saturday, April 27, 2013

"Transparency an idea whose time, definitively, has come."

So said co-chair of the Steering Committee, UK Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude,
in welcoming the eight new members - Argentina, Costa Rica, Finland, Hungary, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Ghana, and Liberia - to the Open Government Partnership in London this week. Twenty of the 58 member countries were represented at the Steering Committee and associated meetings. Mr Maude said
In just 18 months, the OGP has grown into a global movement of 58 countries. Now we must cement the credibility of the OGP as an international force for change by deepening engagement with existing participants and turning promises into actions.Transparency is a tool for reformers all over the world. The best way to make the OGP transparency message stick and encourage more countries to join, is to show how openness empowers citizens and improves their lives; and to make ourselves accountable if we fail to live up to our promises. Once people see the advantages of transparency, the democratic impetus for open government will be irresistible, and there will be no turning back............The UK is a world leader in transparency and we want to be the most transparent government in the world. We are also committed to helping other countries share in the benefits of transparency by increasing participation and exchanging information on openness initiatives through the OGP. An understanding of the potential of open data to sharpen accountability, fuel economic growth and prosperity, and improve public services is an important part of this.
During the week, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, launched the first in-depth study of how open data can be harnessed to foster better governance and provide better services in developing countries. ‘Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries’ (ODDC) grew out of discussions at the OGP in April 2012; and a progress report will be given at the OGP summit in London 31 October-1 November.

Who knows, maybe Australia will make that one?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Australia and the OGP: seize the day at Sydney EITI Conference?

Sounds as if the meetings of the Open Government Partnership in London this week were likely challenging - Toby McIntosh identified in advance these ticklish issues from a crowded agenda.

We're just onlookers of course (did we have anyone working the corridors?) until we take the plunge when the challenges will take on new relevance. 

But hopefully things have progressed regarding our intentions, through that "inter-agency group" revealed in February, since Foreign Minister Carr said yes in principle to membership, and DFAT Secretary Varghese committed to a speedy resolution and response to that letter of invitation in 2011 from Hillary Clinton still cluttering someone's intray.

In any event, glad to see in Australian IT this week, Dr Nick Tate, president of the Australian Computer Society among other important positions, query what's holding us back.

Here's a thought on how we could make a late but stylish entry to the OGP, courtesy of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) Global Conference, Beyond Transparency in Sydney, May 23-24. 

A Government minister, possibly Foreign Minister Carr or Assistant Treasurer Bradbury is expected to welcome the thousand delegates from around the world.

While strong supporters of the EITI internationally, including through a sizeable cash contribution to assist implementation, the Government apparently isn't in a position at this stage to announce  a commitment to implement the EITI on home turf. 

However the complementary goals of the two initiatives and the many cross-overs of those involved with or engaged in the EITI and the OGP in many countries, means this is just the occasion for an announcement that Australia intends to join the OGP. 

An action statement to this audience, would, more than words, lift our standing as a country committed to high standards of transparency and accountability at home, and prepared to put shoulder to the wheel for this cause abroad.

So if you have their ear, a word or a message advocating this is the way to go to Minister Carr, Attorney General Dreyfus, Assistant Treasurer Bradbury and any others close to the seat of power might give things a nudge in the right direction.

By the way registration  for the EITI conference is free. I've signed up and look forward to meeting readers and others there. 

Maybe even one who illustrates the point about common EITI/OGP ground: Maryati Abdullah of Publish What You Pay (Indonesia), a member of the Indonesian OGP core team and one of three new members of the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee welcomed at the London meeting.

More about the EITI and Australia, EITI and OGP and our scattered voice on transparency issues generally..

Monday, April 22, 2013

Decade old SA cabinet documents published, in an unexciting first

The South Australian Government has pro-actively published selected 10 year old Cabinet documents. It's a positive policy step on from that taken by former premier and current High Commissioner in London Mike Rann in 2009 to limit application of the cabinet exemption to ten years. 

No-one seems to have got around in the meantime to amending the act. Policy is one thing but the SA FOI act (Schedule 1 Clause 1) in 2013 still stipulates the cabinet exemption is in force for 20 years after a document comes into existence.

As the Premier and Deputy Premier said the publication of the submissions is a first for SA.  It could of course go even further by publishing more relevant information, such as cabinet outcomes as in the ACT, and recent cabinet documents as in Queensland. (As could the Commonwealth, and the other states. And dare I ask, has anyone in Victoria brushed the cobwebs from the cabinet register required to be published by s 10 of the act?)

Also good to see the SA Government flag "further announcements in relation to the proactive disclosure of Government information after establishing a cross agency Govrnment accountability project" to be headed by the Deputy Premier. 

SA is years behind in this area with the FOI act requirement simply to publish information about structure and functions, the types of documents held, and policy documents as defined. The Commonwealth, Queensland, NSW and Tasmanian governments significantly expanded the publishing requirement in 2009-2010.

I'll leave it to the locals to discover any gems in the documents themselves.

This submission by then Minister for Administrative Services now Premier Jay Weatherill in 2002, noting the intention to draft a Freedom of Information Amendment Bill is, well, unexciting. It's the backdrop to this Bill if you are trying to connect the dots to changes at that time.

As Premier Mr Weatherill has the chance to deliver much more in a state well behind in the FOI reform stakes.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Australian democracy in good shape says Economist IU

Ahh, perspective, perspective.

You won't hear much about this from those lamenting that a hung parliament doesn't work, or in media that caters to the 'democracy is dead' crowd.

The Democracy Index 2012 (Download here) published by The Economist Intelligence Unit has Australia 6 (New Zealand 5) in ranking democratic practices in 167 countries. Both at the top end of the 25 that make it into the Full Democracy category.

We can all point to plenty of "could do much better" examples but Australia's overall score (9.22/10) based on 60 indicators, hasn't changed for three years. The methodology and the sixty indicators are at page 29. Strangely none drill down too far on transparency and accountability.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Open Gov convoluted at ABS

The 2011 Census for free on the web sounded great until, as reported by ITNews, a programmer tried to access it and found it so incredibly difficult that the DVD for $250 was looking more attractive. Leading to speculation maybe this is what the ABS intended all along. Bear with us, says the Bureau. We're on the continuous improvement journey.
According to the spokesperson, the ABS has worked hard to reduce the costs since 2006, when similar datapacks cost $805. As for the convoluted download site layout with registration and obfuscated file paths, the spokesperson said there was room for improvement. "The ABS is constantly looking at ways it can simplify the website and enhance the user experience," iTnews was told via email.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

OAIC in overdrive

That pick up in pace at the Office of Australian Information Commissioner continues: 34 Freedom of Information review decisions published in 2013 to 28 March, against 35 for the entire year last year.

Acting Freedom of Information Commissioner Toni Peroni  (Pirani-apologies) who was, is (?) Assistant Secretary Business Law Branch Attorney General's Department ) has been the decision maker in many of the recently published decisions. A new hand, on loan or on deck? ( I'm informed Acting while Commissioner Popple is on leave.)

Some points of interest below, drawn from a number of decisions concerning business information, and others regarding charges, diversion of resources and testing assumptions such as "five minutes a page" widely used in the charges calculator, and information received from a foreign government agency.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

C U Thursday, maybe?

Look forward to catching up with readers who make it to the Walkley Talks "Press freedom in Australia is under assault" at the State Library this Thursday at 6.30. Free but phone  (02) 9273 1414

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Sunshine best served straight

It's come a long way since this post seven years ago about Matthew Moore's exposure of excessive secrecy concerning compliance with food hygiene standards, and six years since the first Freedom of Information breakthrough by the Blacktown Advocate leading to release of the names of local offending restaurants. Then in 2008 the publication of statewide details by the NSW Food Authority, finally put paid to some of the early nonsense about "privacy" and placed the public interest properly in the middle of the table.

Esther Han's front page splash in The Sun Herald today on the results from the first full release of data from the Food Authority's register reveals that more than 3500 of the 36,000 eateries inspected across the state failed hygiene tests. Over 8000 penalty notices were issued in the past five years. More than 1000 related to cockroach infestations, rodent activity and droppings in commercial kitchens. The worst offenders get more free publicity. (Update: a special serve for the fast food chains in this follow on.)

Testimony to some degree to the old adage, sunshine etc: "Last year 785 food businesses were named and shamed compared with 1309 businesses the year before."The number of food businesses appearing on the register has almost halved in three years..."  

I've lost track of whether this fight for transparency is still to be won in some other states and welcome any updates.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Responsible journalism, "what's the problem?"

Richard Ackland in the Sydney Morning Herald writes of flaws in whistleblower protection and defamation laws, advocating recognition here of a "responsible journalism" defence of the kind accepted in the UK since the House of Lords 1999 decision in Reynolds v. Times Newspapers , and given a fillip in Flood ten years later, and more recently adopted by the courts in Canada

I agree, and with the point Ackland makes that instances of bad journalism hold back the cause. 

But so do the media bosses who quizzically repeated "what's the problem" during the recent furore over proposed media reforms, insisting that everything to do with media standards and the self regulatory system is working wonderfully well, thank you very much.

Leaving it to Professor Julian Disney Chairman of the Australian Press Council to volunteer "There is a whole stack—at least 50 or 60 that we know of—of statutory or non-statutory privileges for journalists or media organisations." 

Some would argue that these "privileges" are essential to enable the media to do its job, and there should be more, for example the "responsible journalism" protection, and better, for example shield laws. 

But they are privileges none the less and should see the bosses in the lead on commensurate responsibility, and in adopting and enforcing high standards. Even if they have managed to see off the government's ham fisted attempt to push them along in this direction.

There is plenty of responsible journalism but everything isn't rosy. As Professor Disney explained to a Senate committee but media bosses didn't, there are plenty of problems with the current self regulatory system. Others outside the tent might add to the professor's impressive list, including the adequacy of some standards particularly respect for privacy (and a lot of haziness and lack of guidance regarding the public interest)
Professor Disney:
"There are substantial problems with media standards in Australia. A number of them we have in common with other countries. What I am going to say now is based on the experience of the complaints that we receive. We get about 600 now. The numbers increased by about 50 per cent over the last year or so, probably because our profile is so much higher than it was before, with our existence and our role being advertised in virtually all issues of every member publication...

The problems include distortion and suppression of key facts and opinions; confusion of fact and opinion; errors of fact, especially online due to excessive haste in posting material and inadequate corrections of those errors; invasion of privacy, particularly through the use of photographs taken from a distance. Some problems, of course, in any profession or industry, are inevitable. I do not think it should be a surprise that there are some. The level is higher than it should be and I think it is a significant problem that needs to be addressed.
Having said that, there is a substantial problem that needs to be addressed. I might say that it has an adverse impact, amongst other things, on freedom of expression. If people are to have freedom of expression, they need access to reliable information. If they are fed false information, then the views that they form and they might want to express will not be the views that they would form and express if they were well informed. Access to unreliable, distorted information is an attack on freedom of expression. 

Similarly, if they are unable to get their voice heard reasonably, because particular outlets have perhaps a general tendency to be more willing to publish views from one part of a perspective on a particular issue rather than another, that infringes on the freedom of expression of those people who do not come from the part that is going to be more generously covered. If they are given an occasional example to express their views but that is overwhelmed by a very extensive coverage of the other view, then again their freedom of expression suffers. Freedom of expression needs to be for all people, not just for those who are wealthy or for those who have special access to the most widely read media. Of course, it is a huge infringement on freedom of expression if people are intimidated by vitriol or by other forms of excessive abuse. That, again, even if it comes from active proponents of freedom of speech, it is in fact an attack on freedom of expression. So media standards, good media standards, are an essential element, for a number of reasons...

Quite a lot of progress has been made but we are still moving too slowly in our handling of complaints. We are suffering from sustained misrepresentation of our adjudications and other comments from some quarters, sometimes from proponents of freedom of speech, who are alleging quite forcefully that some of our adjudications have inhibited freedom of speech. By falsely presenting what we have said and implying that we have put inhibitions on freedom of speech, they themselves are inhibiting freedom of speech. We are still suffering from not a high enough level of cooperation from publishers in some areas and we need to keep working on that. We are making progress.

I want to finish with two important strengthenings that we need to achieve and then comment very briefly on the bill. The first strengthening is—as Mr Finkelstein asked of me at the inquiry, but at the time I said perhaps we should do it another way—we now definitely need to be able to institute our own investigations without waiting for a complaint. There are far too many instances...

I have seen some very bad abuses in the last few weeks where we have had no complaint and yet I know, in fact, the people were concerned about it but thought it would just make it worse if they complained."

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Queensland CMC report floats drastic RTI change

The Australian
The Executive Summary of the report by former High Court judge Ian Callinan on his review of the Queensland Crime and Misconduct  Commission released yesterday is peppered with ascebic observations about  CMC performance and seems mostly about winding the organisation in or taking it down quite a few notches.

But the general nature of Recommendation 10 as framed in the summary and without further explanation is remarkable. It seems to suggest an about face on 30 years or so of administrative law principle that government agencies should give reasons for a decision, including for a refusal of access to information.

Mr Callinan recommends that the Right to Information Act be amended to restrict agencies and the Information Commissioner "from being required to give reasons for refusal to produce documents" and such a restriction should apply for a period of nine months. Perhaps this is meant to be in limited circumstances, for example in responding to requests for documents concerning complaints that may end up with the CMC but the summary doesn't say so. It elaborates on the above in these terms:
"The excuse from the requirement to give reasons must be general because if it is confined to reasons in respect of a CMC investigation, then not giving reasons would immediately identify that the matter was under investigation by the CMC and defeat the purpose of the provision. We recognise this is a far-reaching provision but cannot see any other solution that would prevent leakage of information."
 Reasons could be forced out by a contrary order by the Supreme Court "in situations of compelling public interest."

If there are detailed reasons for the recommendation they are yet to be released. The Executive Summary makes only a passing reference to the underlying issue, "the problem of public release of the fact that the CMC is investigating a matter or a person."  

There is no mention of section 55 of the Right to Information Act which provides that nothing in the act "requires an agency or Minister to give information as to the existence or non-existence of a document containing prescribed information." That sounds as if it might suit Mr Callinan's purpose, although there is room for debate about the public interest in disclosure of well founded allegations of corruption.  

However a quick look at the RTI regs indicates s 55 is yet to be activated four years after the commencement of the act because no information has been prescribed
(Correction: I looked in the wrong place. "Prescribed information" is defined in the dictionary of terms in Schedule 6 of the RTI act  as (a) exempt information mentioned in schedule 3, section 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9 or 10; or (b) personal information the disclosure of which would, on balance, be contrary to the public interest under section 47(3)(b)." While in its current form it doesn't necessarily address Mr Callinan's concerns, some tweaking by amendment might.)
A lot more context and elaboration is needed to justify the recommendation in its present form.
Recommendation 10 reads:

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The IDC on the OGP a mystery no more

There isn't an interdepartmental committee in Canberra looking into Australian membership of the Open Government Partnership.

But there is an"interagency group," a distinction only a public servant, a former one or a Sir Humphrey fan would appreciate. As at February 2013 it had met once, in August 2012. Not several times and not in January.  

This correction of evidence to Senate Estimates by a senior officer from Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sets the record straight. It is dated 21 March, the day after Senator Faulkner spoke in the Senate about discrepancies in the evidence from DFAT and AG's. PDF 36KB.

Here in full - as Sir Humphrey might say, just "to more accurately reflect the facts."

Dr Kathleen Dermody
Secretary of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee
Department of the Senate

I write to correct my evidence given to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade
Legislation Committee Estimates hearing on 14 February 2013.

I refer to Hansard pages 44 (line 50), 45 (line 2) and 46 (lines 14 and 30) where I referred to
an "interdepartmental committee" or "IDC" in relation to the Open Government Partnership.
I propose that the references to "interdepartmental committee" and "IDC" identified above
are replaced with "interagency process" which reflects the terminology I more accurately
used on page 47 (line 16).

I additionally refer to Hansard page 46 (line 9) where I stated "The IDC has met several
times." I would propose changing this to "The interagency group has met once." to more
accurately reflect the facts. When giving evidence I was under the impression that the
interagency group had met more than once. 

On page 46 (lines 19 and 20) I stated "I can inform you that to my knowledge the IDC has met most recently in January". I would propose changing this to "I can inform you that to my knowledge the interagency group has met most recently in August 2012." to more accurately reflect the facts.

I would also propose to amend the figures on Page 45 (line 39), which as Senator Faulkner
noted, were not up-to-date. The revised sentence should read "At the moment, 47 countries
have joined the initiative, and 11 have indicated their intention to join."

Yours sincerely
Richard Rowe
First Assistant Secretary/Senior Legal Adviser
ational Organisations and Legal Division

The text of messages from Secretary of State Clinton in 2011 and UK Minister for the Cabinet Office Maude in 2013 for Australia to join, neither of which received an answer, were also tabled in response to questions. PDF 464KB

Hot topic: Press freedom

If you are in Sydney on Thursday 11 April, get along to the Walkley Media Talks series panel discussion, "Press freedom in Australia is under assault", with Philippa McDonald of the ABC keeping Linton Besser, Sophie McNeil and me on topic and under some sort of control. 

Details here-free, how good is that? 

At the State Library in Macquarie St at 6.30pm. Bookings are essential.

Also of potential interest (but no, not free), the Excellence in Government Decision Making Symposium organised by the Australian Government Solicitor in Canberra 20-21 June with plenty of important administrative law topics up for discussion. Details here (pdf).

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

NSW GIPA scheme short on performance information

It is hard to get a handle on the state of the game, with the Information Commissioner to step down in a few weeks. 

The lack of performance information has been noted here previously, as recently as January.

Prompted by a report in The Australian at the weekend Commission rules on casino documents on a review by the commissioner of a refusal of access decision by the premier's office that is critical of the original decision and other matters, I went looking for the review report.  

Not only is it not there but no review reports have been published since May 2012. The latest investigation report is dated June 2011. 

These reports are an important part of the armoury with the potential to keep ministers and agencies on their toes and up to the mark.

The most recent account of how the IPC is traveling came when the information and privacy commissioners appeared before the NSW parliamentary Committee on the Ombudsman, the Police Integrity Commission and the Crime Commission in February. The questioning was hardly forensic and the session only lasted an hour. But the Information Commissioner generally presented a positive picture both of IPC performance, and agency compliance and co-operation in implementing the Government Information (Public Access) Act. While a squeeze on resources at the IPC and in agencies was noted, not a lot was made of this. (Committee members showed interest in two specific issues, the privacy threats from the use of drones and access to convict records.)

Anecdotally - and that's all there is in the absence of performance information about efficiency and effectiveness at the IPC and what agencies are up to - it's a very mixed bag.  There are long delays waiting for IPC review decisions.The extent to which agencies abide by IPC conclusions which are recommendatory only is unknown. There has been no report published on agency performance.

One experienced journalist tells me using GIPA has been disheartening, to the point of giving it away as an investigative tool; another, that things vary enormously from agency to agency, with individuals often making the difference between outcomes that are understandable at least, and continuation of the old refuse access and die in the ditch approach.

Some exchanges between the commissioner and committee members taken from the transcript are below. 

With a disgruntled citizen apparently sending the commissioner 40,000 emails there may have been plenty of distractions from the IPC's main game.

Monday, April 01, 2013

The OGP attracts interest from the top in the US, low key here

The US continues to talk up, and talk about the Open Government Partnership.

Last week  the White House issued a report card on US National Action Plan initiatives undertaken over the last year; the State Department included the OGP in an overview  of significant human rights developments in Asia and the Pacific; and President Obama said "countries all across the world" are signing up, in welcoming the interest of four African countries – Cape Verde, Malawi, Senegal and Sierra Leone - after meeting their leaders in Washington.

Here, after Senator Faulkner stirred things up in Estimates, the issue of Australian membership has again dropped from sight, despite indications over a month ago that Foreign Minister Carr was on board and DFAT was going to hurry things along.

Hopefully someone in Canberra close to the action is gearing up for a trip to London for OGP meetings later in April that would provide a chance to catch up with developments in the US and the other 57 countries actively engaged in thinking about how to improve democratic practices.