Search This Blog

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Open data tick for Australia but information on foreign aid short of the standard

Mixed results for Australia in two reports released in the lead up to the Open Government Partnership Summit in London: a comparative good showing on publication of government data, but just making it into the fair group for transparency in the publication of information on our foreign aid program in accordance with the international standard. One recommendation to lift performance in that area is that Australia's OGP national action plan should include 'stretch commitments' to reach the standard. Would be great to hear from that sector as CSO interest in the OGP sparks up. 

OGP London

High energy at the Civil Society Day in London yesterday, with privacy and surveillance a hot topic.  A smorgasbord of important sessions are scheduled for the OGP Summit over the next two days. For those interested from afar, click on a session's name to see its live video stream.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Allan Kessing update

Allan tells me that generous people continue to deposit money in his account, all helping to move him from prone to somewhere closer to upright. If you can and would like to help please email me at or phone 02 83569622 for details of how to go about this.

Linda Mottram on 702 ABC Sydney Mornings is broadcasting from his neck of the woods tomorrow Wednesday from 8.30am until 11am-if near a radio or online you might hear Allan's story. 
Spot the buck-Allan is not the only one now poking around. But ever hopeful:
Not exactly pluvial but at least, kinda-sorta, real rain this evening though even that is diminishing as I write. Better than nothing which is what we've had here for the last 3 months. I keep ...err, make that kept a weather journal for the past 20yrs and had only checked it on the morning of that dire day to see when the last real soaking had occurred. Here's hoping I see Noah getting out his tools in the morning. Thanks for everything,

Friday, October 25, 2013

OGP Summit-hold that Australian chair!!

A spokeswoman for the Attorney-General said today:

* The Commonwealth Government supports the principles of open government.

* Australia appreciates the opportunity to attend the Open Government Partnership Summit in London.

* Australia will be represented at the OGP Summit in London by Mr John Sheridan and Mr James Kelly. Mr Sheridan is the Australian Government Chief Technology Officer & Procurement Coordinator and First Assistant Secretary at the Department of Finance. Mr Kelly is Minister Counsellor (Economic), who is the senior Treasury official at Post.

1. Good news that the government supports the principles of open government, although that may give rise to a wry smile or two around the traps. But not a single flourish about the importance of transparency and accountability, or word from the Prime Minister or a ministerial colleague to this effect.

2. Welcome news that the government will be represented in London.But no specific commitment here that the Abbott Government intends continuing on the path to join the OGP, as announced by then Attorney General Dreyfus in May, and implicit in a White House statement issued on behalf of the Australian and other governments on 23 September.

3. I'm sure John Sheridan is a capable, fine Chief Technology Officer who has a good background in Gov 2.0 and open data issues through his positions past and present in the Australian Government Information Management Office in the Department of Finance. I'm  sure he's also full bottle or very interested in democratic principles and practices and the scope to improve democracy through practical commitments to advance transparency and accountability on a range of other fronts across many areas of government. And keen to pick up best practice ideas in London for partnering back at home with civil society in the development of a national action plan-assuming it's full steam ahead with that membership application. Ditto Mr Kelly - who would be wise not to bend too many ears in London with the wisdom behind the Treasury Blue Book decision or in explaining the government's satisfaction to date with the limited transparency arrangements that apply to the use of parliamentary entitlements...sorry it's late.

The only other Australians attending that I'm aware of are Open Australia co-founders Dr Matthew Landauer (courtesy of the OGP Support Unit) and Katherine Szuminska.

Travel well and

Go Team!! 

Update-Memo to the Team and others following the OGP with interest: take a look at the London 'buzz' as gathered by Toby McIntosh.

Blackout over payments to state politicians

Lack of transparency is a feature of all the state and territory arrangements for payment and use of entitlements as recounted here often over the years. 

In the wake of media interest in our Federal pollies, Sean Nicholls for The Sydney Morning Herald and Rosemary Bolger for the Launceston Examiner both tried to take a look at the state counterparts and ran into a brick wall when asking for information in NSW and Tasmania. I think those who try it elsewhere will also come up empty handed other than dated global figures, if anywhere tucked away in annual reports.

One of the contributing factors is that the parliaments/parliamentary departments are not covered by the relevant state or territory freedom of information legislation. Of course, better than this, all the relevant information should be published on line on a single web site, in close to real time, and fully searchable, but FOI coverage would be one small step in the right direction. 

That this isn't the case is a scandalous gap in the transparency and accountability systems.

I had been working on the basis that FOI coverage of the Parliament was the situation in Tasmania. Not, as noted in 2009, that anyone has shouted this from the rooftops or that it is obvious from a glance at the Right to Information Act.

My analysis then and now is that the Tasmanian Parliament as a public authority is subject to the Right to Information Act with respect to information in its possession that relates to matters of administration. This would seem to extend to payments to and acquittals by members, and other use of public funds managed by the offices of the clerks.

But Rosemary Bolger writes
Entitlements are signed off by the clerks of the upper or lower houses and remain forever hidden, protected by an exemption from Right to Information. Why the secrecy? I suspect it's more laziness than a deliberate attempt to bury the figures. 
When I contacted her she said this is what she was told eventually when someone at Parliament House answered her question. I suggested she should take it further.  

The media in other states and territories should be making a fuss about the opaque system that operates and demanding better. 

The citizenry should join in and start with their local member.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Allan Kessing stunned and grateful

Thank you to those who in words and deeds reminded Allan Kessing this week he has friends and supporters even if he hasn't met most. Pledges of well over $3k were made this week and indications are it will go higher. If you are in a position to provide financial assistance please email me at or telephone 02 83569622 and I can tell you how best to go about this.
 From Allan's email a few days ago:
I am stunned at such a response but feel uncomfortable about accepting such amounts from individuals whom I don't even know...I was on site this morning at Dawn and there was a brief flurry of "silly" rain. The 5 day old embers are still hot enough that when the drops hit the ash it sends up plumes like mini volcanoes. Already the birds have returned and are enjoying the feast of the various seed stores that I had in old metal garbage bins on a pallet. Because it had burnt beneath them they'd mostly tipped over so they think it is a Cornucopia. The strangest things remain unburned, some plants are parched but a metre on either side is black. I retrieved from one pile of ash a lustre ware bowl, delicate at the best of times, unharmed. Truly a strange experience seeing how the land I've known for 30 yrs looks beneath its green clothing.

"The truly bizarre thing is that by next morning there were fresh roo droppings on the inexplicably unburnt areas of lawn, surrounded by charcoal. Perhaps they have a taste for cooked food?"  

Global Transparency Week

From 24 October and concluding with the Open Government Partnership Summit 31 October-1 November it's Global Transparency Week. Plenty of weighty topics on the agenda for the Civil Society Day in London on 30 October and at the Summit.  I'm aware that Matthew Landauer and Katherine Szuminska of the Open Australia Foundation will be in London running ragged to keep up but interested in hearing from any other Australians who will be there. In view of the continuing silence it seems almost certain that the government won't be represented. On the home front Denis Muller and Michelle Grattan on The Conversation both comment about early signs of a new/old transparency normal.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

OGP Summit-anyone in the Australian chair?

In a week's time the Open Government Partnership Summit will take place in London. Over 1000 delegates from 60 countries are expected.

UK Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude will host the meeting. Indonesia,"in many respects our most important relationship" according to Prime Minister Abbott is co-chair.

Minister Maude said the priority for the summit is "to set out ambitious transparency commitments for all participants and to embed the organisation as a credible force for making governments more open, accountable and efficient, and societies healthier and more prosperous."

At the G8 earlier this year, British Prime Minster David Cameron pledged that the UK’s leadership of the OGP would “drive a transparency revolution in every corner of the world.” As the host of this year’s Summit, the UK government hopes this remarkable gathering of open government reformers will advance measurable progress in at least five key policy areas: - See more at:

The UK also currently chairs the G8. Linking the two earlier this year, Prime Minister Cameron pledged that the UK’s leadership of the OGP would “drive a transparency revolution in every corner of the world.”

As the OGP host the UK government hopes to advance measurable progress in at least five key policy areas:
Open Data: Radically opening up government data for greater accountability, public service improvement and economic growth
Government Integrity: fighting corruption and strengthening democracy through transparent government
Fiscal Transparency: helping citizens to follow the money
Empowering Citizens: transforming the relationship between citizens and governments
Natural Resource Transparency: ensuring natural resources and extractive revenues are used for public benefit.

Sounds important and worthwhile. But will we be there?

It's not sounding promising despite the fact then Attorney General Dreyfus announced in May this year Australia's intention to join. The opposition was silent at the time. I wrote to Senator Brandis, Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull in the pre-election period asking about the Coalition's position but received no reply.

The government has said nothing on home soil since the election. But a statement issued in Washington by the White House on 23 September on behalf of Australia and 20 odd other governments includes a committment to strengthen support for bodies such as the OGP that encourage participation by civil society in initiatives to improve democratic practices.

Over a week ago I phoned the Media unit at the Attorney General's Department asking whether the government would be represented in London. When no-one rang back as promised, I rang again. This time I was asked to email my request and did so on 17 October: Following up a telephone request yesterday as have not received a response: Will the Australian Government be represented at the OGP Summit meetings in London 31 October-1 November? If so by whom? If not is the Government still committed to joining the OGP as announced by the Attorney General in May this year, and as reflected in the statement of support issued on its behalf by the White House on 23 September? Thanks.Peter Timmins Open and Shut

No reply. I emailed again- to no avail.

On the non-government side, as a result of generous assistance from the OGP Support Unit Dr Matthew Landauer, co-founder of the Open Australia Foundation will attend, along with the other co-founder Katherine Szuminska. There may be others.

Some of us taking a close interest in the issue will be meeting with Dr Landauer tomorrow in Sydney.

As to whether anyone will be sitting in the big chair marked 'Australia' no-one is saying.
Update- late word, yes we'll be there.

Treasury leads on 2013 Blue book transparency-backwards

In contrast to 2010, when it led by providing partial but significant disclosure of the brief provided to the returning Treasurer and was followed in due course by most other departments, this time Treasury leads in the opposite direction, refusing access in response to a freedom of information application to the incoming minister brief prepared for Treasurer Joe Hockey. And to the Red book prepared for a returning Labor government, although let's leave that to one side for the purpose of this post.

The decision to refuse access to the entire brief is passing strange given Treasury released in response to FOI applications substantial parts of the same document prepared for a Coalition victory which didn't happen in 2010; audacious in it's reasoning, using but going further than the comments made on the issue by Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan in the recent Crowe v Treasury decision; and disappointing in effect as others are sure to follow. 

Sean Parnell in The Weekend Australian reported the Attorney General's Department had rejected an application for the AG's brief as well. 

With the current delay in the OAIC meaning any review decision could be 12 months down the track, Treasury has provided a template for others wrestling with the issue. And bought months of secrecy regardless of the eventual outcome, although public statements and selective leaks from on high that suit the department, the Treasurer or the government can be expected

The decision sounds a louder alarm about government transparency generally, already ringing because of other developments and the fact that neither the Prime Minister nor any ministers including Senator Brandis who has responsibility have said anything in the lead up to the election or since to reassure that the future involves more not less.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Allan Kessing's plight strikes a chord

Thank you to those who have contacted me over the last few days by phone and email - a selection below - offering help to Allan Kessing who lost his home last week in the bushfires.  

If you also are in a position to assist, please email me on or phone 02 83569622. As I  told those who have been in touch, I'm waiting to hear further from Allan about how best to give effect to the generous offers. Thanks again.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Allan Kessing shattered - by bushfires this time

I've followed the misfortunes of Allan Kessing since kicking off here seven years ago. But was shattered by this report from his brother in Crikey, following yesterday's bushfires near Sydney:
"Allan has a block of land at Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, he was up there by himself yesterday, trying to protect his house from the fires coming from the Lithgow area. He told me it was quite eerie up there before the fires hit. Then I got a message around 5pm saying everything was gone, there had been a sudden wind change and fires had broken out around Mount York Rd, Mount Victoria. He tried to fight it with his water pump, generator, hose and sprinkler system but the speed and ferocity of the firestorm was overwhelming. When the Rural Fire Service volunteers arrived they told him he must have a had a close escape, half his beard was burnt off and he didn't realise. Allan is completely devastated by the loss of the property and his extensive, lifelong book collection. Allan has only recently completed the construction of the house. He has poured his life savings into what was meant to be his mountain refuge from the pressures of his 'whistleblower' conviction. This brave Australian deserves better than this."
You can say that again and again. I've tried to contact him this afternoon, and, dear reader, put you on notice of a call for help for this learned champion of honesty and integrity.

Allan deserves praise and thanks for his effort to highlight failings within Customs and the security problems at Sydney Airport in 2005, recounted here. I believe him when he says he is not guilty of the offence, despite a conviction, of leaking a report to journalists at The Australian, but that he had spoken to his local MP Anthony Albanese, in Opposition at the time. Having made a fuss prior to the 2007 election about Allan's treatment during the Howard era, the ALP left government in September 2013 having done nothing to address the injustices foisted upon him.

Allan, wherever you are, be assured many are thinking of you and ready to lend a hand in response to this disaster.

On a personal note I have a daughter who with her family at Springwood have cleared out twice in two days as the fires neared, but are safe and not otherwise affected. Commiserations to all impacted by the fires.

Update: Allan responded, philosophically, to my message on Friday night:
Thanks for your thoughts, I'm OK just a bit pissed off at being broke again (uninsured!!) but, as the old chinese proverb sez, "now that my store house has burnt down, my view of the scenery is no longer obscured"...The amazing thing.. is that though the new house is gone, all my sheds, the garage which I put up in 2006 was unscathed, even though it was only a couple metres from conflagration, standing like Gibraltar amid a sea of grey ash and smouldering coals & embers. So at least I still have something to live in.. all in all, I'm luckier than most.. thanks for thinking of me."
I have asked him to put aside any uncomfortable feelings to tell me where I can send some money. If you feel moved by his situation, and would like to do likewise please contact me by email or by phone 02 83569622.

Further update.

Lobbyists lobbying for changes to NSW lobbying rules

Wikimedia Commons-Adam J.W.C
A public test of their skills? 

Some suggestions go beyond self interest, and that's a good thing although they stop short of reasonable expectations on the transparency front. 

The media in the first stage of the committee hearings has focused on the travails of Minister for Community Services Pru Goward and DOCS.

However the terms of reference for the select upper house inquiry are broad covering ministerial responsibility, potential conflicts between public duties and other interests, lobbying, and ministerial and parliamentarian codes of conduct.

Three of the five submissions are from lobbyists.

The submissions recommend movement towards a nationally consistent scheme. 

They argue, with only shades of difference, that the current registration scheme, or at least the ethical standards incorporated in the lobbyist code should extend beyond third party lobbyists to in-house lobbying staff and service providers such as lawyers and consultants when engaging on a client's behalf to seek to influence government decision making.

Premier State Consulting wants the scheme extended to lobbying local government, and suggests lobbyists should be banned from providing goods and services to the NSW Government. Premier State and the Public Relations Institute of Australia submit the scheme should also extend to lobbying members of parliament and their staff.

The PRIA submission, perhaps with an eye to Queensland where this is part of the scheme and on a proposal floated by the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 2010 but not acted upon, submit lobbyists should not be required to report contacts. Recording and reporting should be the responsibility of the government representative or employee. Transparency should be enforced through freedom of information to ensure appropriate disclosure and protection of confidentiality where necessary for personal or business reasons.

Overall however the lobbyists have gone quiet on these ICAC recommendations:
  • amend the Government Information (Public Access) Act to include records of Lobbying Activity in the definition of “open access information” for which there is no overriding public interest against disclosure. Open access information held by an agency must be made publicly available, including on a website maintained by the agency.
  • require disclosure of the month and year in which they engaged in Lobbying Activity, the identity of the government department, agency or ministry lobbied, the name of any Senior Government Representative lobbied, and, in the case of Third Party Lobbyists, the name of the client or clients for whom the lobbying occurred and the name of any entity related to the client the interests of which did derive or would have derived a benefit from a successful outcome of the lobbying.
  • enable an interested person to use the information disclosed on the proposed Lobbyists Register, in relation to the date of lobbying and who was lobbied, in order to seek access to further information from the relevant public sector agency through the various mechanisms set out in the GIPA Act
  • provide for an independent government entity, such as the NSW Information Commissioner, to maintain and monitor the Lobbyists Register, and have powers to impose sanctions on lobbyists.
The current keeper of the register and enforcer of the rules, the Department of Premier and Cabinet has also made a submission. 

Of particular interest is the Department's initiative in publishing correspondence with lobbyist Joseph Tannous and his firm First State about claims on Linked in about his capacity to attain 'desired results' for clients. Until 18 September Mr Tannous was a member of the Executive of the NSW Liberal Party. The Premier has announced that from the end of October office holders in political parties cannot register as a lobbyist. The Prime Minister said the Federal Government would follow suit. We should be grateful for small mercies

The fifth submission is from Queensland Integrity Commissioner Dr David Solomon who has a long background in this field, and has written extensively on ministerial responsibility.

Dr Solomon supports extension of the scheme to others engaged in seeking to influence decisions, and argues the scheme should be incorporated in legislation. 

The Queensland Commissioner comments that it is 'extraordinary' that the NSW Ministerial Code of Conduct is not a standard within the purview of the ICAC, in contrast to the Code of Conduct for MPs: 
"For the most part it is the Ministers who wield power. They are the Government. If they are exempt the Ministers who constitute the government are not answerable for breaches of the Code of Conduct that applies specifically to them as Ministers...."
We await with interest to see what the committee makes of that. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Parliamentarians entitlements-following the money ain't easy

The entitlements saga rolls on as more eyes take a look at published information on the Department of Finance website. 

Leaving aside the nature of the claims, here is why the system is a far cry from the simple and transparent model needed:

Publication on line of details of entitlement payments by the Department of Finance commencing in 2008. Reporting categories were expanded in 2009. Here is the latest-for the period July-December 2012. Searching across members and senators and over different six month periods is complex, putting it mildly; publication of payments in any event is nowhere near real time. The Belcher Committee noted that publication is voluntary and recommended it be enshrined in legislation.

Use of entitlements paid by Finance before 2008: Not published. Make a Freedom of Information application. Probably wait at least 30 days. With regard to some information, the member or senator may argue that it is personal and should not be disclosed as Prime Minister Gillard did in 2012-13 concerning a repayment made in 2007. Be prepared to appeal the decision. It could be a slow process.

Payments to, or support provided to senators and members by the Parliamentary departments such as salaries and electorate allowances, additional salaries and support provided to parliamentary office holders, superannuation entitlements, resettlement allowance payments, and services and facilities to support parliamentarians in Parliament House including the cost of office accommodation, computing and other equipment, telephones, newspapers and stationery: Not published. Can't be accessed under FOI because parliament exempted itself from the act in June this year.

Gifts and interests: Published by the House as a series of notifications by the member of changes but no up to date list of current interests and the register has no search function. The Senate register may be different-but none of the links to pages for individual senators opened for me.

Payments to or on behalf of ministers, assistant ministers and parliamentary secretaries by their departments, or the cost of support provided such as the cost of official cars for the Minister and spouse; departmental liaison staff; additional stationery, office requisites, furniture and equipment in Ministers’ and Parliamentary Secretaries’ Parliament House Offices and their home State offices; official hospitality; and a range of other services: Not published. Make an FOI application. Follow the same path as for Finance pre 2008.

The current fuss shows the rules need to be sorted. And that we need fully transparent timely disclosure and a comprehensive single site searchable system to follow the money.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Former minister reflects on 'proud' Labor legacy on FOI

Proving the old axiom that Opposition is the preferred platform for politicians looking to say something about freedom of information, Senator Joe Ludwig former special minister of state in the first Rudd government offers some thoughts in The Guardian on Labor's record, and points to danger signs ahead.
One of my proudest enduring legacies from my time as a minister in the Labor government was bringing reform to Freedom of Information (FOI) law. My reforms made it easier for the public and the media to access the workings of government. 
It's true that Senator Ludwig was shadow attorney general before the 2007 election and Labor in Opposition did come up with a policy for FOI reform.

In government his predecessor as special minister of state Senator John Faulkner deserves the credit for breaking through on the necessity for some change, but doesn't rate a mention in this account. The 2010 FOI reforms that eventuated were good and welcome but a long way short of reasonable expectations ("minor improvements" according to Jack Waterford) and the law placed in the forties in world rankings.

 Ludwig's account ignores other parts of the Labor legacy on transparency and open government. 

For example quite apart from the patchy but improved record on actual disclosures under the act, the list includes barely visible drive from the top on Open Government, ministerial failure to advocate and lead on public service culture change, resource cut backs at the Office of Australian Information Commissioner resulting in a 12 month queue for external review, no action for years on whistleblower protection until the game was almost over, allowing the Law Reform Commission Report on Secrecy Laws and Open Government completed in December 2009 to disappear into a black hole at Attorney General's, and the same goes for the September 2011 invitation from Secretary of State Clinton to join the Open Government Partnership until it was acted on by Mark Dreyfus in May 2013, skewed terms of reference for the half-hearted review of the operation of the legislation by Allan Hawke in 2012-13. I could go on.. 

Of relevance to the current kerfuffle over entitlements, Senator Ludwig commissioned the Belcher review in September 2009, following critical findings by the Auditor General. The report was handed to him six months later. It had not been released publicly by the time Senator Ludwig moved to Agriculture after the August 2010 election. The report was tabled in Parliament in March 2011, close to a year after it was completed. Few of the recommendations were acted upon then and that remains the case today.

Senator Ludwig in appointing the Committee said:
"We are committed to reform, openness and transparency to ensure that we maintain the trust and confidence of the Australian people,”
Ah that trust thing - it's been running for quite a while. 

He could be right by the way about difficult days ahead on the transparency front.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Privacy concerns rising and hard to ignore

Not surprising given what we see and hear around us, the report on the Community Attitudes to Privacy Survey undertaken on behalf of the Office of Australian Information Commissioner shows that Australians are becoming more concerned about privacy risk. The report provides useful insights into attitudes on a wide range of specific privacy related issues. 

The long drawn out process of enacting the Stage One privacy law reforms to commence in March 2014 is just one of many steps that will be needed to keep pace with the challenges posed for protection of privacy and changing community attitudes.

Two among many issues likely to require consideration by the Abbott government are:
One, Australia currently has no requirement for mandatory data breach notification.
The survey shows 85% strongly and 11% somewhat agree that business should notify them if personal information is lost; 88% strongly and 8% somewhat agree government should do the same. A third (33%) of the population has either been the victim of ID fraud or theft or knows someone who has.

(Given the expectation regarding notification by business, Australians might be surprised that most  businesses aren't subject to privacy legislation because of the exemption for small business - a Stage 2 reform that awaits attention six years after the ALRC recommended this and other exemptions for example for political parties should be withdrawn.)

To address the notification issue, the House of Representatives passed the Privacy (Alerts) Amendment Bill earlier this year but the bill was not considered by the Senate prior to the election and has now lapsed. 

During debate in the House, Michael Keenan, then shadow and now Minister for Justice said the coalition supported the bill but reserved the right to move amendments following any recommendations made by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee. 

The Senate Committee, after allowing one and a half days for submissions recommended passage without amendment but coalition senators Humphries and Boyce were critical of a process that meant the bill had not received thorough and detailed scrutiny. The "concerns of key stakeholders should not lightly be set aside..concerns raised..should be better scrutinised, understood and acted upon by the relevant government agencies.." Concerns raised in committee included the meaning of key terms such as 'real risk of serious harm' within the trigger definition ' serious data breach', the practicality of some notification requirements and the breadth of exceptions.

Two, the rise in concern about privacy risks and intrusions will focus attention on the adequacy of protections imposed and remedies available in law. The publication of the survey results coincided last week with release by the Australian Law Reform Commission of an Issues Paper, the first stage of public consultation for the Serious Invasions of Privacy in the Digital Age reference. The paper seeks input on 28 questions, 25 relating to a possible cause of action for breach and alternative ways that existing laws could be supplemented or amended to provide appropriate protection for privacy in the digital era. Submissions close 11 November.

To say the Attorney General Senator Brandis was underwhelmed at the prospect of further ALRC examination of the issue of a statutory cause of action for a serious and unwarranted breach of privacy when the issue cropped up in May would be an understatement. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Parliamentarians entitlements-travel just part of the bigger picture

Reports about newsworthy parliamentarians' entitlement claims and of repayments for some questionable ones have been mostly sourced from details published on the internet by the Department of Finance since 2009. Some of the longer pieces for example Tom Allard in the SMH are starting to raise bigger picture issues about complexity and the need for a fair, simplified fully transparent system.

However the Prime Minister in Brunei said that as far as travel entitlements are concerned
I'm not proposing to change the system. If people want to make suggestions, they’re welcome to make suggestions, but I’m not proposing to change the system.If people want to make suggestions, they’re welcome to make suggestions, but I’m not proposing to change the system.
FactCheck confirms the rules are not clear.

More broadly the Belcher committee made plenty of other suggestions, recommendations in fact, for change in 2010 that have been ignored so far and others have been floated since.

Publication of the details of payment of entitlements by Finance for example is voluntary.The Committee recommended it should be underpinned by legislation. 

Other recommendations about governance arrangements were ignored as well.
The review didn't even look at the general provision of services at Parliament House to senators and members but still referred to the opaque nature of the system. Its recommendation on that score should be ratcheted up into a mandatory publishing requirement when Parliament gets back to accepting FOI coverage: 

That the presiding officers be encouraged to publish on a regular basis details of expenditure on services and facilities provided to individual senators and members by the chamber departments.
 On another front, those seeking access to information about use of entitlements by a senator or member in the pre-2009 period must run the freedom of Information gauntlet, with all the delays and obstacles that can arise when either the agency or a third party wants to argue the toss or at least slow things down.This shouldn't be necessary.

With regard to some information at least Finance in processing the application consults the person concerned on the basis that the senator or member may contend the disclosure is of personal information, would be unreasonable and contrary to the public interest.

Case in point: the decision by Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan in 'AK' v Department of Finance and Deregulation [2013] AICmr 64. An unnamed member of parliament argued unsuccessfully against disclosure on this basis of a document that revealed in 2007 she had repaid $4200 for use of the taxpayer provided private plated car in 2006 by her partner in driving throughout Victoria as a salesman of hair products. The car is provided for Parliamentary, electorate or official business, family travel and private purposes, but not for commercial purposes

It subsequently emerged the parties were Ms Julia Gillard MP and Tim Mathieson.

Hedley Thomas of The Australian was onto this in October 2012 when he made the application.The documents that revealed the repayment were released to him in September 2013.

(Addendum: Finance posted the released documents on its Disclosure Log under the heading 'Documents relating to government funded vehicle'- in separate pdf files that would take a fair bit of digging to find or interrogate. Gillard's name is mentioned as the MP.)

This sounds like one of those classic 'wait out' and 'grind down' the applicant stories. In this case Ms Gillard, Prime Minister at the time, was a third party relying on a wing and a prayer, as Professoir McMillan made clear in rejecting the exemption claim. Delay in the facts coming to light may have been the main objective.

On taking office as Prime Minister, Ms Gillard famously proclaimed let the sun shine in.
Given the message sent by the PM as AK was it any wonder those close to the grindstone might have taken the proclamation with a grain of salt?

Of course don't even think about digging deep at Parliament House. Not only are details of payments not published, Parliament exempted itself from the FOI act.

Red hot if you ask me.

Reform is needed and badly.

Over to Prime Minister Abbott, presumably still intending to address the trust deficit.

Friday, October 11, 2013

FOI-free zone around Federal Parliament

A few hundred words dashed off for The Guardian on a topic familiar to readers here but relevant to the focus this week on parliamentarians' use of entitlements: the rapid passage of legislation in the last week of parliament before the election to exempt the parliamentary departments from the Freedom of Information Act.

Ah, that trust thing

Monday, October 07, 2013

Parliamentary entitlements-it's not just expenses in attending a wedding

Parliamentarians and their use of entitlements is getting a good but belated run in the mainstream media-hopefully not just because it is a slow news day. I did ABC Radio AM and ABC News 24 Breakfast this morning. And ABC Radio National Drive and a cameo on 7.30 Report with most on the cutting room floor. In case you missed it- some of the weaknesses in the system. Also a post from April 2011 about the Belcher report, back in the news.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Incoming government briefs: what's changed since 2010?

The first Blue Book access issue of the 2013 new government season has emerged with Delimiter told that its Freedom of Information application for the briefing book in the hands of Communications Minister Turnbull will cost $2072 to process. And quickly crowd-raising the money.

We could be in for a different season this year compared to 2010. Then, following Treasury's 2007 and 2010 leads, government agencies released or published mostly redacted versions of the incoming government briefs. 

Foreign Affairs did manage to spin it out for a year!

This time around we aren't hearing transparency talked up-so far.

Tone at the very top in some cases is trending in the opposite direction.

The recent decision by Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan, although leaving open the issue of access to 2013 briefs, canvassed the range of issues relevant to disclosure. The first time observation that a 'class claim' could be entertained for exemption of certain types of documents (incoming government briefs?) as deliberative process documents won't have gone unnoticed.

 Back in 2010 Prime Minister Abbott had strong views on a related issue, publication of Treasury costings of Liberal policies, during the days of uncertainty about the formation of a government:
TONY ABBOTT: This is very important Lyndal, because you know, our system depends on public servants being able to give free, frank and fearless advice to government and that means the advice has got to remain confidential. And what we've got here is a desperate Prime Minister trashing the Westminster system in an attempt to hold onto power.

LYNDAL CURTIS: So you don't want that information released?

TONY ABBOTT: Well if, if, if the most confidential public service advice can be casually released just to help this government to hang onto power, I mean they are trashing the Westminster system in a desperate attempt to hold onto power...The conventions are there for a reason, they are there because if you are going to have efficient and effective government the public service has got to be able to give confidential advice...Now you just can't have this advice strewn around like confetti because you have a desperate government desperately trying to cling to power and in the process trashing the Westminster conventions. But what cannot happen, you cannot have the frank and fearless advice of the public service prejudiced by releasing it to people for whom it was never intended. I mean this completely undermines and compromises our whole system of government.
More on point, Opposition frontbencher then, now Minister for Trade and Investment Robb said at the time incoming government briefs warranted state secret status if a public service 'down tools" was to be avoided:
''The red and blue books are fundamental to successful transition to government, and that's another important plank of convention in the way in which our government runs,'' he said. ''That material is based on frank and fearless … advice by the public service, and if they thought that could become public knowledge, they would not conduct that sort of assessment again.''
And sitting unattended so far in the in tray of Attorney General Brandis, Dr Hawke's FOI review report recommends a specific conditional exemption for the briefs.

There are counter arguments of course, particularly that the public interest in disclosure of those parts of briefs that contain information about the state of the nation or departmental slices of it is strong. The South Australian Ombudsman's observations about the state equivalent documents, held in that case to be cabinet documents, apply equally to documents about national affairs:
In my view, there are reasons why the agencies might give access to parts of the portfolio briefs and other briefing documents, notwithstanding that they are exempt.....I consider that there is a strong public interest in members of the public being aware of policy initiatives and other issues that the agencies consider important to South Australia. In my view, access to such information would enhance public participation in discussions about South Australia’s future, and would be consistent with the objects of the FOI Act of promoting openness and accountability, as well as the principles of administration. I consider these public interest factors to be strongest with respect to generic documents, that is documents prepared with either a returning Labor or an incoming Liberal government in mind
In any event in Canberra this year there is potential for all this to be a drawn out FOI battleground. And something of an early test regarding the need to address the trust deficit.

Charges might be round one. Those in the queue with applications for the Communications brief have apparently received a letter asking for a deposit against  the estimated cost of processing their application - the same $2072 as indicated to Delimiter. While probably technically within the law the applicants and the court of public opinion might see this as a bit rich. 

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

'Restoring trust' should encompass parliamentarians' entitlements

The brouhaha in recent days over use of travel allowance and other entitlements to fund travel to a wedding is yet another reminder of the unsatisfactory nature of the Federal parliamentarian entitlements system. 

A long, long time ago in a galaxy that seems far, far away the Belcher review, completed in 2010, in a report released a year later recommended changes that led the then Labor government to nod. And in large part proceed to bury. 

Not that Belcher had all the answers.

But in any event, four years after that committee was apponted, here we go again....

The Sydney Morning Herald editorial  'The rules on MPs' expense claims need to be rewritten' argues for clarifying the rules in the light of these expense claims - the job to be undertaken by someone other than the politicians.

Similar ambiguity arises regarding the Publication Allowance, apparently used to buy all sorts of interesting books in the case of Senator Brandis. As unearthed by Stephen Murray purchases included lives of the Popes, histories of Byzantium, Berlin and the Spanish Civil War, essays and writings by Orwell and Nietzsche, a collection of Isaiah Berlin’s letters, and a survey of the life and works of a Scottish colourist. The entitlement is for the costs of purchasing publications 'for purposes related to Parliamentary, electorate or official business' in a senator's case, subject to a yearly limit, currently around $5000.

But vague or ambiguous rules are just one element of the crazy quilt system.

Most payments to or on behalf of parliamentarians are made by Finance. The payments, that include travel and publications, simply require a signed certification that use is within the rules, and are published on-line every six months. A welcome acknowledgement of the importance of accountability and transparency. But publication occurs nowhere near real time, the latest for the period July-December 2012.

Digging deeper in Finance beyond what is published about use of entitlements is possible under the Freedom of Information Act. But good luck- in this recent case a still unnamed parliamentarian or, since the election former parliamentarian, designated 'AK' in the decision has managed to put off the evil day of disclosure of information about use of entitlements for a year and counting.

Other entitlements are paid by the relevant parliamentary department, the Department of House of Representatives or the Department of the Senate. In addition payments beyond the standard entitlement are made to or on behalf of office holders such as the Speaker of the House - Mr Slipper's coat and tails and a sizeable tucker bill provided a glimpse - and the President of the Senate. None of these payments are routinely published on line.

In a staggering stampede in the wrong direction the Parliament legislated in June to remove the parliamentary departments from the Freedom of Information Act. Ignoring the fact that this was an issue within the terms of reference of a statutory review of the operation of the FOI act completed in April. The report released in August recommended the parliamentary departments should be covered by the act in relation to documents of an administrative nature. No one on either side has said a word since.

Then on behalf of and in support of parliamentarians who are ministers additional payments are made by their departments. None of this information is published.

As Professor McMillan observed in AK:
Parliamentary entitlements are publicly funded, administered and scrutinised. There are strong public interest considerations that support transparency concerning these matters, and in particular, transparency concerning whether there has been compliance with government guidelines. Members of Parliament would reasonably expect public scrutiny of their use of Parliamentary entitlements occurring at any time during their Parliamentary career.  Parliamentary entitlements are publicly funded, administered and scrutinised. There are strong public interest considerations that support transparency concerning these matters, and in particular, transparency concerning whether there has been compliance with government guidelines. Members of Parliament would reasonably expect public scrutiny of their use of Parliamentary entitlements occurring at any time during their Parliamentary career.
Simplification and transparency along the lines of a single site monthly online publication of details of all payments and expenditure are what is needed. Putting it up on the internet and making it searchable by member along the lines of this Scottish Parliament system would be a step in the right direction.

In case you were wondering about related matters, commitments by the previous government to create the position of Integrity Commissioner came to nothing. Ditto a proposed Code of Conduct for parliamentarians. 

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, Steven Ciobo told Parliament when in Opposition that these sort of feel good things are a waste of time:

"The reason that there is still behaviour that people frown upon is that, fundamentally, it comes down to individual choice. Simply adding one more document to a pile of documents and simply having one additional public servant called an integrity commissioner is not going to change a thing. Anyone who believes that it will is delusional. It has not changed things in other jurisdictions. It is not as if in the United Kingdom or in the state of Queensland, where these types of vehicles exist, there is this great love of the parliament or towards parliamentarians. No. The same problems exist in those jurisdictions. This is nothing more than a feel-good exercise that will deliver no net tangible benefit whatsoever."
Finally if Canberra disappoints, unfortunately there is no reassurance in the state parliaments where things are even worse.

Trust, where art thou?