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Friday, March 20, 2015

Malcolm Fraser's proudest legacy: "Freedom of Information"

Timeshift9 at en.Wikipedia
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser (1975-1983) who died this morning aged 84, when asked by Jack Waterford of The Canberra Times about the achievement of which he was most proud said Freedom of Information legislation. (Believe me even though the link to the article has disappeared-"A legacy the PM could recall fondly" The Canberra Times 26 March 2007. Update-Waterford in a recent article:
"Soon after his fall, Fraser was asked about his greatest achievements, and nominated, somewhat to my surprise, the passage of the FOI Act. Planned by Whitlam, its cause had languished through most of the Fraser years until it came into effect on the eve of his departure.")

Parliament passed Freedom of Information legislation and the act commenced in 1982 on Fraser's watch after a long drawn out battle that began with Gough Whitlam's election victory and commitment to introduce FOI in 1972. 

As later revealed in "Malcolm Fraser The Political Memoirs" by Fraser and Margaret Simons (The Megunyah Press) Fraser pushed on with FOI despite  strong resistance from within the government. These notes in 1977 for example from then Secretary of PM&C Geoff Yeend:
16 May. Note for Prime Minister from Secretary of PM&C:
"Freedom of Information legislation would result in administrative chaos.. departments keeping dual filing cabinets."

20 May. Handwritten note to Prime Minister from Secretary PM&C marked "not for file": "Were I not under threat of my advice being made public I would be questioning with you this whole legislation. It is a can of worms, political commitments notwithstanding."

The heads of Defence and Treasury are opposed to the legislation. Broader and in some cases blanket exemptions are necessary.

More delay, reconsideration and advice is needed.
In 1980 Yeend sent this note to the PM:
"What we've got here would go further than any other country with a similar system of government and is an "experimental step of major dimensions.. Whatever the politics of the decision it is certainly a gamble in the administrative sense."
Unfortunately there is no sign current Prime Minister Abbott shares Fraser's attachment to transparency and accountability. Attorney General Brandis remains intent on abolishing the Office of Australian Information Commissioner if he can get six crossbenchers to support a bill that has now been before the Senate since October. In the meantime the FOI functions of the office from 1 January and continuing are unfunded and it operates on a reduced basis with funds crimped from elsewhere.

And Yeend's sentiments live on. Current Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd recently described FOI laws as "very pernicious" and said they "have gone a bit further than what they were intended to." 

Vale Malcolm Fraser.

Fingers crossed for his legacy.

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