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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Is this the senate to sort out public interest immunity claims?

The Senate from here on will likely be an even livelier front for argy bargy over access to government documents.

 But whether there is appetite and numbers among Labor, The Greens, the PUPs and assorted others - maybe even among staunch parliamentarians on the government benches - to push for a mechanism to resolve a disputed public interest immunity claim remains to be seen. Refusal to produce has been treated as a 'political problem' to date. If the matter can't be sorted by negotiation it dies in the ditch at that point.

In February there were indications it was game on. At one point the non-compliance rate with orders of the 44th Parliament to produce stood at 100%. The Senate Procedural Information Bulletin at the time labelled it "an unprecedented situation." The record has improved since.

The Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee then huffed and puffed about the refusal to comply with an order to produce documents relating to 'Operation Sovereign Borders' with secrecy about the boats an ongoing issue, given new impetus this week.

The report also recommended the Senate refer to the Procedure Committee "as a matter of urgency" inquiry into the independent arbitration process followed by the NSW Legislative Council regarding responses to orders to produce and any modifications necessary if such a scheme was to be adopted by the Senate. The Clerk of the Senate Dr Laing told the References Committee the NSW system is the best around for adjudicating these matters.

The 'matter of urgency' didn't count for much. The report was tabled on 6 March but there has been no debate and no referral to date.

Meanwhile stand offs continue. 

The Procedural Bulletin reported on the May-June Senate Estimates hearings:
There were numerous occasions when officers or ministers declined to provide information and senators pressed for articulation of the grounds on which the information was being declined. In most cases, the questions were then taken on notice. Some examples include:
  • monthly reports of agency figures on involuntary redundancies (Australian Public Service Commissioner) – said to be advice to ministers (FPA, 26/5)
  • whether the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff attends Cabinet meetings (FPA, 27/5)
  • appointment and role of the new Cabinet Secretary (FPA, 27/5)
  • the timing of advice on cessation of the Nursing and Allied Health Scholarships Support Scheme in Tasmania (CA, 3/6)
  • further questions about funding for mental health programs (CA, 3/6)
  • the number of Cabinet decisions in relation to free trade agreement negotiations with China (FADT, 5/6).
In other cases, while only skeletal public interest immunity claims were articulated – such as national security concerns in relation to information about drone strikes in Yemen and the death of Australians (LCA, 28/5) – senators did not press for further information....

There are always cases of officers or ministers declining to provide answers on the basis of “longstanding” practice, only to be embarrassed by the discovery of the information from a public source moments later. In this round, the ministerial order of precedence – astonishingly – was claimed to be a secret, but was found shortly thereafter on Wikipedia (FPA, 27/5). It is also reflected in the published ministry list and in the order of occupation of seats on the front benches in each House. Membership of the Government Staffing Committee was also discovered to be public information (FPA, 29/5)...

Despite the recent enhancement of opening statements with the agreement of the Chairs’ Committee, “advice to Government” is still the most common bleat by officers and continues to remain unpursued on most occasions. Apparently, it is also “not the practice” to make legal advice public in estimates hearings, a statement made in the context of discussion of the tabling of departmental legal advice on the legality of settlements in the Palestinian Territories at a previous round of hearings (FADT, 4/6).
In another development Senator Wong has a number of motions before the Senate including 298,
noting "the frequency with which freedom of information legislation is invoked to withhold information from senators and the Senate, not only by reference to grounds of exemption in the legislation but also apparently on the basis that an answer will not be provided if a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has been lodged for the same information;
(b) recalls the observations of the Procedure Committee in its Third Report of 1992 that:
(i) there is no basis in law for the application of the FOI Act to the production of documents to a House;
(ii) if a minister were to regard all of the exemption provisions in the FOI Act as grounds on which to claim a privilege against disclosure of information to a House, this would considerably expand the grounds of executive privilege hitherto claimed;
(iii) the use of the provisions of the FOI Act as a checklist of grounds for non-disclosure does not relieve a minister of the responsibility of carefully considering whether the minister should seek to withhold documents from a House, or from considering the question in the context of the importance of the matters under examination by the House;
(c) resolves That the same principles apply to the provision of information to committees in response to questions asked by senators, which require the same careful consideration by ministers;
(d) declares that declining to provide documents or answer questions on the basis that an FOI request has been made for the same information is an unacceptable response, is not supported by the FOI Act and shows a profound lack of respect for the Senate and its committees.
Secrecy surrounding what is up for grabs in the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement continues to attract attention in the Senate.

Meanwhile The Greens Senator Rhiannon is seeking to up the ante in that 'vexatious applicant' matter and the associated refusal of an an FOI application for the Senate vote count software, with this motion that may or may not get a run today:
*330 Senator Rhiannon : To move—That there be laid on the table by the Special Minister of State, no later than 15 July 2014:
 (a) all correspondence and documents, whether written or in email form, from the Special Minister of State’s office and/or the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) relevant to:
 (i) the decision of the AEC to have Mr Michael Cordover declared a vexatious applicant, and
 (ii) the assertion that Mr Matthew Landauer colluded with Mr Cordover to harass the AEC; and
 (b) the source code of the software by which Senate vote counts are conducted.
(Update: Paul Farrell in The Guardian reports the motion passed on 10 July and quotes Senator Rhiannon:
“There is no justification for the AEC refusing to release information on how the Senate vote is counted,” Rhiannon said. “It is widely known that it is very complex so surely the methodology used should be publicly available. “Why would you stop the public knowing how the Senate vote is counted?..The AEC are not only doing the wrong thing in refusing a legitimate FOI request – in the wake of the WA federal election debacle they are further damaging their own reputation,” Rhiannon said. “The AEC hardline position in trying to discredit Mr Cordover as a vexatious litigant is an abuse of the law under which the AEC operates and raises the very relevant question what do they have to hide."
I'd expect resistance to the software demand which in the FOI context the AEC claims contains 'trade secrets' and information of a commercial value. Whether the Senate or the AAT becomes the forum for battling this out remains to be seen.

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