The senator is among the few who take a serious interest in transparency and accountability, evident in his time as a staffer to former senator Nick Xenophon, and in his own stead since he replaced Xenophon in November last year.
Introduction of the bill took one minute of the senate's time but it won't automatically sink without trace. It has been referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 30 November 2018. Thus the opportunity to draw attention and advocate for action from those in government who since the election in 2013 have settled for words if pressed on the subject.
While well short of the changes that would be expected if Australia embarked on developing information access laws fit for the 21st century, an OGP commitment on which the government has remained silent about what is under consideration since August 2017, Senator Patrick's bill is a welcome attempt to identify high order priorities for improvement.
- Requiring the government to fill all three offices of the Australian Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner and the Freedom of Information Commissione
- Allowing FOI review applicants to elect to have their matter bypass the Information Commissioner, who can take more than a year to make a decision on controversial issues, to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
- Granting an FOI applicant the right to switch a review into the AAT, without charge, in the event that the Information Commissioner takes, or indicates he or she will take, more than 120 days to make a decision.
- Preventing agencies from making submissions to FOI decision reviews that have not been advanced by the agency in its internal decision making, so that they can't switch exemptions half way through a review as often happens now. This would prevent a current practice that, in effect, this allows an agency to remake decision half way through a review, something not normally permitted in merits reviews being run in superior jurisdictions.
- Preventing the Information Commissioner from making FOI decisions if he or she does not hold the legal qualifications required of the FOI Commissioner (as happens now).
- Preventing agencies from publishing information released under FOI until at least 10 days after the applicant has received his or her copy of the information.
- Promoting the use of freedom of information requests by Senators and Members of the House of Representatives by entitling them to access to documents without charge unless the work generated by an access application involves charges totalling more than $1000.
- Requiring an agency to publish its external legal expenses for each Information Commission or AAT FOI matter that has concluded. This would apply in relation to agency FOI legal expenses and to expenses incurred by the National Archives in respect of applications made for access to information under the Archives Act 1983.
Specific mention of The Accountability Roundtable is an acknowledgement of the tireless work of the former Chair Tim Smith QC in drawing attention to the Abbott and Turnbull governments' move away from the legislated model of three commissioners to exercise the functions of the OAIC and to downscale resources available for FOI and information policy.