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Monday, July 15, 2019

NSW: 30 years on the open government journey shouldn't go unnoticed

The thirtieth anniversary of the commencement of freedom of information in NSW passed on 1 July.

I didn't see any public acknowledgement from within government ranks, and its just another anniversary after all.

The NSW Government has had much more on its plate including working through a massive reorganisation that kicked off within weeks of the March 23 election. This involved abolition of nine agencies and wholesale transfer of functions to fit a new framework, relevantly including a Customer Service Cluster (pdf) and the transfer of the Information and Privacy Commission from the now abolished Justice Portfolio.

Having expressed concern and reservations over the years about the icy grip lawyers have on information access functions, this appears to be a positive step.

For those interested in a bit of history below is a post (slightly edited) I wrote five years ago on the 25 years of the NSW access to government information journey.

The record since, overall, would appear to reflect gradual improvement with NSW Information Commissioner Tydd in the lead. Interested to hear from observers about  the last five years.

There will always be rough patches, ditches and the occassional rock fall but NSW is a long way down the path from the 'bastion of secrecy' that the late Peter Wilenski described in 1982.


NSW-information access-the journey so far. 
First published July 2014 

"The ALP policy platform going into the 1972 election included a commitment to Federal legislation. That started the discussion that led to the enactment of a law finally passed by Parliament in 1981. The act commenced a year later. 

A report on the state of the NSW public service in 1977 (Directions for Change) by the late Professor Peter Wilenski and his follow up report in 1982 (Unfinished Agenda) recommended freedom of information legislation, by this time a commitment in state labor's policy platform.The 1982 report described the NSW Government as a “bastion of secrecy.” The Labor Government introduced an FOI Bill into Parliament in 1983 which promptly disappeared into the filing cabinets at the premier's department marked 'courageous' and lapsed. 

Silence followed although I can recall then head of the premier's department Gerry Gleeson saying in the mid eighties that NSW (without an FOI act and with very limited parliamentary scrutiny) led the nation on transparency and accountability mechanisms. Needless to say it didn't.

Against a backdrop of corruption allegations in the Labor government tipped out at the election and within months of his electoral victory in 1988, Liberal Premier Nick Greiner introduced separate bills on freedom of information and the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption. 

Greiner saw the link  between excessive secrecy and corruption. His key adviser through this period Gary Sturgess said at the time corruption “is behaviour between consenting adults, it’s secret. It’s a crime of the powerful.”Because it took place in secret it was often difficult to obtain evidence and prosecute successfully, so “what we have (in the ICAC) is a process of shame, exposure and cleansing.”

The connection between the two initiatives was that greater transparency through FOI would reduce opportunities for corruption, and the ICAC would help educate the public sector about the management of corruption risks, and investigate allegations of corrupt conduct.

But FOI's objectives went beyond curbing corruption.The second reading speech is replete with references to how the law would strengthen democracy, improve accountability, and lead to a more active citizenry involved in the affairs of their government. It would help citizens make more informed judgments at election time. The prospect of greater scrutiny would lead to better decisions by ministers and public servants in the day-to-day operations of government.

The ICAC commenced operations in March 1989, the FOI act on 1 July 1989.

It was recognised at the time that FOI would require strong, vigorous and continuing leadership to shift government culture from discretionary secrecy to compulsory disclosure of information. Responsibility for the FOI legislation was retained in the Premier's Department, not as elsewhere assigned to Attorney General's. A senior, able and experienced public servant with a strong commitment to make things work, David Roden was put in charge of a support unit.

However the FOI support unit only lasted a couple of years, the then secretary claiming, either naively or with hidden intention, that it had done such a good job in seeding FOI it was no longer needed. 

A long period of 'orphan status' for FOI began, with few and rare voices speaking up for the principle of transparent and accountable government that underpinned the law, except successive occupants of the Office of Ombudsman, and long time Deputy Ombudsman Chris Wheeler.

It also became clear within a few years that the law itself had significant flaws and implementation efforts were at best patchy. 

Then ombudsman, David Landa, told the government early on the act was overly complex with too many vaguely worded provisions that were being used to refuse access to documents. He also said not enough was being done to change the culture. 

Successive ombudsmen reported consistently that the law needed review and that the public service was failing to manage responsibilities required by law, let alone reflected in spirit and intent. Various reports highlighted obfuscation, delay and the high cost of access.

No one took much notice until Ombudsman Bruce Barbour found an enthusiastic supporter of meaningful change in Premier Nathan Rees in 2009, having placed on the table a year earlier a comprehensive review and a long list of recommendations.  

With change in the air elsewhere, notably in Queensland, Rees led and Parliament passed a much improved but short of best replacement act, the Government information (Public Access) Act in 2010. (No one has ever owned up publicly for the terrible choice of name.) Unfortunately Rees took his eye off the ball for a moment, enough time for responsibility for the new legislation to be passed to Attorney General's to administer, not a step in the right direction.

'Orphan' no more, under the GIPA scheme the Information Commissioner has responsibility to champion the open transparent and accountable government cause among other functions.

As for the lofty ambitions of 1988, information access is much improved, and the 'open data' journey is underway. Still rumblings of discontent about time, cost and mental gymnastics when it comes to some reasons for decision.

 A five year statutory review of the GIPA act is due now, so hopefully a chance to to build in further improvements.

Anecdotally, culture change has occurred and continues, but we don't have much in the way of measures or indicators to get at the complete picture. As a generalisation, Wilenski's 'bastion of secrecy' doesn't hold these days. However I'm yet to hear of agency interest in asking their staff about attitudes they see on display about open, transparent government, or asking applicants what they make of their GIPA experience, and how access to information could be improved.

A larger part of the corruption iceberg may be visible these days through the investigations of the ICAC. Prophetically, Greiner himself said in 2009 "the corruption we see now in the state is probably just as endemic and systematic" as it was in the late 1980s.

On the democracy front, experts and the public would agree that the government and the people are still largely separated in "them and us" groupings, and that we are still in the dark about what goes on in many areas of government. Too much of what passes for consultation is of the "read our discussion paper, send us a submission and we'll go ahead and do what we intended anyway."

As for the quality of government decisions, ministers and public servants are still too often at the barricades seeking to protect from disclosure advice documents on the basis that release would be the end of the world as we know it.Not seeming to recognise at a time when politicians and government agencies aren't held in high regard, that openness and transparency are essential for rebuilding trust and confidence in the policy process, as Stephen Bartos argued in The Canberra Times.

Greiner was onto something 25 years ago."

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy

Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy

On Wednesday, the AFP raided the ABCs Sydney headquarters in relation to the 2017 “Afghan files” report. AAP/David Gray
Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, The University of Queensland
The Australian Federal Police has this week conducted two high-profile raids on journalists who have exposed government secrets and their sources.

On Tuesday, seven AFP officers spent several hours searching News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s Canberra home, her mobile phone and computer. The AFP linked the raid to “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret”.

This stemmed from Smethurst’s 2018 article, which contained images of a “top secret” memo and reported that senior government officials were considering moves to empower the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to covertly monitor Australian citizens for the first time.

Soon after, 2GB Radio Presenter Ben Fordham revealed he had been notified by the Department of Home Affairs that he was the subject of a similar investigation, aimed at identifying the source of classified information he had reported regarding intercepted boat arrivals.

And then on Wednesday, the AFP raided the ABC’s Sydney headquarters. This dramatic development was in connection with the 2017 “Afghan files” report based on “hundreds of pages of secret defence force documents leaked to the ABC”. These documents revealed disturbing allegations of misconduct by Australian special forces.

The reaction to the raids was immediate and widespread.

The New York Times quoted News Corp’s description of the Smethurst raid as “a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths”. The Prime Minister was quick to distance his government from the AFP’s actions, while opposition leader Anthony Albanese condemned the raids.

But to those familiar with the ever-expanding field of Australian national security law, these developments were unlikely to surprise. In particular, enhanced data surveillance powers and a new suite of secrecy offences introduced in late 2018 had sparked widespread concern over the future of public interest journalism in Australia.

The crackdown of the past few days reveals that at least two of the core fears expressed by lawyers and the media industry were well-founded: first, the demise of source confidentiality and, secondly, a chilling effect on public interest journalism.

Source confidentiality

Upon finding out he was the subject of an investigation aimed at uncovering his sources of government information, Ben Fordham declared
The chances of me revealing my sources is zero. Not today, not tomorrow, next week or next month. There is not a hope in hell of that happening.
Source confidentiality is one of journalists’ most central ethical principles. It is recognised by the United Nations and is vital to a functioning democracy and free, independent, robust and effective media.

One of the greatest threats to source confidentiality is Australia’s uniquely broad data surveillance framework. The 2015 metadata retention scheme requires that all metadata (that is, data about a device or communication but not, say, the communication itself) be retained for two years. It may then be covertly accessed by a wide array of government agencies without a warrant. Some reports suggest that by late 2018, some 350,000 requests for access to metadata were being received by telecommunications service providers each year.

Read more: Data retention plan amended for journalists, but is it enough?

The government was not blind to the potential impact of this scheme on source confidentiality. For example, obtaining metadata relating to a journalist’s mobile phone could reveal where they go and who they contact and easily point to their sources.

This led to the introduction of the “Journalist Information Warrant” (JIW). This warrant is required if an agency wishes to access retained metadata for the direct purpose of identifying a professional journalist’s source.

So, access to a professional journalist’s metadata in order to identify a confidential source is permitted, provided the access has a particular criminal investigation or enforcement purpose and the agency can show it is in the public interest and therefore obtain a JIW.

This week’s raids suggest that either JIWs could not be obtained in relation to Smethurst, Fordham or the ABC Journalists, or the journalists’ metadata did not reveal their sources, or the AFP did not attempt to access their metadata.

Alternatively, if metadata had identified the journalists’ sources, it is less clear why these dramatic developments took place.

After 2015, journalists were advised to avoid using their mobile devices in source communications. They were also encouraged, wherever possible, to encrypt communications.
But in 2018, the government went some way to closing down this option when it introduced the complex and highly controversial Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018.

As well as expanding computer access and network access warrants, the Act provided a means for government agencies to co-opt those in the telecommunications industry to assist agencies with their investigations. This could include covertly installing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in specific devices, circumventing passwords or allowing encrypted communications to be decrypted. A warrant would then be required to access the device and communication data.

It is impossible to know whether Australian journalists have been targeted under the Act or had weaknesses or spyware installed on their personal devices. This week’s raids suggest the AFP would be prepared to target journalists under this framework in order to identify journalists’ confidential sources.

However, this could only be done for some purposes, including in the investigation of a secrecy offence.

Secrecy offences

In June 2018, the government introduced a suite of new espionage, foreign interference and secrecy offences. This included an offence of current or former Commonwealth officers communicating information, obtained by virtue of their position, likely to cause harm to Australia’s interests. This offence is punishable by imprisonment for seven years. If the information is security classified or the person held a security classification, then they may have committed an “aggravated offence” and be subject to ten years’ imprisonment.

This week’s raids reveal just how common it is for public interest journalism to rely on secret material and government sources.

Read more: Government needs to slow down on changes to spying and foreign interference laws

But the journalists themselves may also be facing criminal prosecution. The 2018 changes include a “general secrecy offence”, whereby it is an offence (punishable by imprisonment for five years) to communicate classified information obtained from a Commonwealth public servant. Fordham’s radio broadcast about intercepted boat arrivals was, for example, a clear communication of classified information.

Again, journalists are offered some protection. If prosecuted, a journalist can seek to rely on the “journalism defence” by proving that they dealt with the information as a journalist, and that they reasonably believed the communication to be in the public interest. The meaning of “public interest” is unclear and, in this context, untested. However, it will take into account the public interest in national security and government integrity secrecy concerns as well as openness and accountability.

Protecting media freedom

Australia has more national security laws than any other nation. It is also the only liberal democracy lacking a Charter of Human Rights that would protect media freedom through, for example, rights to free speech and privacy.

In this context, journalists are in a precarious position – particularly journalists engaged in public interest journalism. This journalism is vital to government accountability and a vibrant democracy, but has a tense relationship with Australia’s national interests as conceived by government.
National security law has severely undercut source confidentiality by increasing and easing data surveillance. National security laws have also criminalised a wide array of conduct related to the handling of sensitive government information, both by government officers and the general public.
And these laws are just a few parts of a much larger national security framework that includes: control orders, preventative detention orders, ASIO questioning and detention warrants, secret evidence, and offences of espionage, foreign interference, advocating or supporting terrorism, and more.

JIWs, and the inclusion of a journalism defence to the secrecy offence, recognise the importance of a free press. However, each of these protections relies on a public interest test. When government claims of national security and the integrity of classifications is weighed into this balance, it is difficult to see how other interests might provide an effective counterbalance.

One of the most disturbing outcomes is not prosecutions or even the raids themselves, but the chilling of public interest journalism. Sources are less likely to come forward, facing risk to themselves and a high likelihood of identification by government agencies. And journalists are less likely to run stories, knowing the risks posed to their sources and perhaps even to themselves.

Against this background, the calls for a Media Freedom Act, such as by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, have gained significant traction. It may take this kind of bold statement to cut across the complexities of individual laws and both recognise and protect the basic freedom of the press and the future of public interest journalism in Australia.The Conversation

Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, Senior Lecturer, TC Beirne School of Law, The University of Queensland
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

'The public has a clear right to know what One Nation is up to.'

Did Al Jazeera's undercover investigation into One Nation overstep the mark?

Andrew Dodd, University of Melbourne
The sheer audacity of Al Jazeera’s three-year ruse is astounding.
The news company’s investigation unit has carried out a sting that has captured both the National Rifle Association of the United States and Australia’s One Nation Party in all sorts of compromising positions.
The series, “How to sell a massacre”, has exposed the NRA’s manipulative media practices and revealed One Nation’s desire to cosy up to the US gun lobby to find ways of funding its domestic campaign to overturn our gun laws.
The documentary has exposed the thinking of some of the party’s most senior figures about taking control of the parliament and their obsession with Muslim immigration.

How to Sell a Massacre P1 | Al Jazeera Investigations.

Al Jazeera senior producer Peter Charley did this by placing actor-turned journalist Rodger Muller in the field to impersonate the head of a fake pro-gun lobby group called Gun Rights Australia. The pair then pandered to One Nation’s desire for financial support and international endorsement and exploited US gun lobbyists’ fears about Australia’s strict gun laws.
They got away with this for three years, gaining unprecedented access to the halls of the NRA and to the minds of two One Nation officials, Queensland state leader Steve Dickson and the party’s controversial chief of staff, James Ashby.

Read more: How Australia's NRA-inspired gun lobby is trying to chip away at gun control laws, state by state

A matter of ethics

There are at least two ethical questions about this documentary.
The first is whether the producers have overstepped the mark by not only reporting what they saw but creating the scenario in which the events occurred.
The second concerns the program’s extensive use of hidden cameras.
On the first matter, the issue is whether the program created the meeting between One Nation and the NRA and therefore acted irresponsibly by entrapping the subjects of the film.
In his account of what happened, Rodger Muller put it this way:
Then Charley asked me to contact Pauline Hanson’s One Nation – a far-right pro-gun Australian political party. Charley wanted me to find out if any connections existed between One Nation and the US gun lobby. And so began another chapter in my life as an avid “gunner”.
When I approached One Nation Chief of Staff James Ashby and mentioned my NRA connections, he told me he wanted to visit the US to meet them. I set up meetings in Washington and soon Ashby and One Nation’s Steve Dickson were on a flight to the US.
I was there, ready to meet them. And our hidden cameras were all primed and ready to go.
This suggests that Muller and Al Jazeera were catalysts and enabled the connection between One Nation and the NRA. But it also demonstrates that there was a desire on the part of One Nation to meet the US gun lobby, and – as later becomes clear - the party was motivated to do so to raise funds and make political connections.

So is this responsible journalism?

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance code of ethics – the protocols by which thoughtful journalists operate in Australia – is largely silent on this issue.
It doesn’t say anything explicitly about creating the news by making connections between players to observe what happens next. But it does stress the need to “report and interpret honestly”.
It calls on reporters to use “fair. responsible and honest means to obtain material” and to “respect personal privacy”. But the code also acknowledges journalists both scrutinise and exercise power. The preamble makes the point that journalism animates democracy.
Most importantly, in its guiding cause, the code states:
ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context.
It allows for any of its other clauses to be overridden to achieve “substantial advancement of the public interest”.
So is it wrong to make and enable connections that might not otherwise happen in order to observe the outcomes? Is this fair and honest and responsible?
Like many things, the answer might be dependent on the motivation. From where I stand, it looks like Al Jazeera’s motivation was to get to the heart of something fundamentally important that would otherwise remain opaque.

Breaches of privacy and deceptive conduct

And while we’re pondering that one, there’s the perennial ethical question about hidden cameras.
This isn’t your garden variety case of a tabloid TV program exposing a dodgy car salesmen or a real estate scammer. In this film, the use of hidden cameras directly places several parts of the code of ethics against that all important public interest override.
The question is whether the public’s right to know is so important that it justifies the film’s deceptive conduct and breaches of privacy.
For me, the use of hidden cameras can clearly be defended when a publicly funded Australian political party, that knows what it’s doing is dodgy, is making connections to “change Australia” by gaining the balance of power in the parliament and “working hand in glove with the United States”.
It is highly likely the extent of One Nation’s behaviour could only be exposed through this sort of reportage. James Ashby is captured repeatedly reminding others they need to be secretive in their dealings with the NRA.
The public has a clear right to know what One Nation is up to. This is especially the case when part of its mission is to learn new techniques to manipulate the public debate to pursue an agenda of overturning the ban on guns following the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre.

The NRA are media experts

There’s something else about this program that justifies the use of hidden cameras. It exposes the utter cynicism of the media messaging and media training that underpins the NRA like nothing I have ever seen before.

Read more: What the NRA can teach us about the art of public persuasion

In a closed meeting with NRA officials, One Nation is given a crash course on how to deal with bad press, particularly following mass shootings.
Lars Dalseide, an NRA media liaison officer, is captured saying pro-gun lobbyists should smear supporters of gun control by accusing them of exploiting the tragedy.
He even provides a useful retort to anyone who might suggest that gun ownership might be a factor in a mass shooting. He says:
How dare you stand on the graves of those children to put forth your political agenda.
“Just shame them to the whole idea,” he suggests, by arguing pro-gun campaigners should declare to opponents:
If your policy isn’t good enough to stand on its own, how dare you use their deaths to push that forward.
As he says this, Ashby is recorded replying: “That’s really good, very strong”.
Some of that phrasing seems familiar in the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, suggesting parts of the NRA’s playbook have already made their way down under.
This documentary underscores two things.
The brutal tactics of the gun lobby and the operations of One Nation need exposing. Journalism sometimes has to take on the unsavoury job of extracting the truth from those who do not want to share it.

The Conversation

Andrew Dodd, Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
Read the original article.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

"Implied understanding" of confidentiality about Federal-State meetings?

In the Estimates hearing for Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet this week Senator Rex Patrick referred to an FOI knockback that suggested meetings of senior officials are confidential, and put the department on notice that he is going to challenge.

And gave this tip:
"I haven't lost one yet. So maybe you want to go back and reconsider a decision on this particular issue."

Senator PATRICK: I've just got a couple of questions—perhaps to you, Ms Foster. Mr Duggan might also be helpful in this regard. I put in an FOI—and I don't want to prosecute the FOI, but it raises a more general concern I might have—for access to a diary. It was the secretary's diary, actually. In response to that, the words came back that the diaries obviously contain details of meetings between the secretary and senior officials of state and territory governments, that information about those meetings is not in the public domain and that, further, there's an implied understanding between the Commonwealth and the states and territory authorities that details of these meetings are kept confidential. I just want to narrow in. Is this some sort of state-to-federal-government agreement that exists with the secretary, or is it more generally a claim that there is an implication that meetings that are held between federal officials and state officials are always secret?
Ms Foster : Let me just get the expert up to the table so that we can answer you very precisely.
Senator PATRICK: Fantastic.
Mr Duggan : There's no general agreement in this regard. It really depends on the nature of the conversation that's being had. Clearly, if the nature of that conversation is something of commercial or national security effect, then that's not something that we typically publicise. But, to the extent that there is no general understanding or general set of rules or guidelines that prohibit—
Senator PATRICK: So there's no implied understanding that the existence of a meeting should be held secret, because you could imagine that anyone listening would think that something that would occur in Stalin's times is that there is general secrecy when public officials, who work for the state, are paid for by the state and work for the public—and it's the same on the federal side—meet. In fact, the FOI guidelines are quite good and case law is quite good, in that what normally could be protected—and there is a threshold to that protection; it is not a blanket protection—is that the communication that is taking place at those meetings is held to be confidential, not the meetings themselves. By way of example, when Mr Dreyfus sought to have access to Mr Brandis's diaries, the judge made it very clear that a meeting between the Attorney-General and ASIS cannot be withheld. It doesn't go to what they talked about, but one would expect the Attorney-General to talk to ASIS on a regular basis. So is there some understanding that the fact of a meeting taking place between state officials is to be withheld from the public? Is that the case?
Mr Duggan : The FOI Act provides that there are grounds but under some fairly strict conditions. I think your presumption that, in general, we wouldn't seek to hide the fact that there were meetings taking place between Commonwealth and state officials is absolutely right. But there are some ground under the FOI Act where you would withhold that information. Those ground are: we would reasonably expect it to cause damage between the Commonwealth and the states—
Senator PATRICK: Yes. That's the threshold I was referring to. But the words were very clear: 'There is an implied understanding between the Commonwealth and the states and territory authorities that details of these meetings are kept confidential.' So that there would be an implied understanding of confidentiality of the fact of a meeting taking place.
Mr Duggan : There's also a second element to that, which is about the extent that revealing that information would disclose information on a matter that's communicated in confidence between the Commonwealth and the states. So there are some things that we do transact with the states and territories that are—
Senator PATRICK: But, for example, having a meeting with a Murray-Darling Basin state or having a Mr McCormack meeting with a state transport minister would surely not be confidential?
Ms Foster : It would be very unusual for the fact of the meeting to be—
Senator PATRICK: Sure. That's what I'm getting to.
Ms Foster : covered by that. But, in some cases, that is the case. As you'd be aware, with each FOI request, we look at each document and assess it on a case-by-case basis. We're not making a generic statement about such meetings but saying that, in this instance, we believe this exemption applied.
Senator PATRICK: This actually makes it very clear: there's an implied understanding between the Commonwealth and states and territory authorities that details of these meetings are kept confidential. Which is why I said: is it only the secretary of PM&C that that applies to, or, more broadly, everyone? But you're saying that's not the case.
Ms Foster : What I'm trying to say is that I think that statement was setting the context for us to apply in this specific case, because if, indeed, there is nothing sensitive, then there is no reason to withhold.
Senator PATRICK: I guess I'll leave this to the Information Commissioner now—
Ms Foster : Indeed.
Senator PATRICK: and, possibly, the AAT. But I'll give you a bit of a tip: I haven't lost one yet. So maybe you want to go back and reconsider a decision on this particular issue.
Ms Foster : Certainly, Senator.
Senator PATRICK: I've won them in the AAT, and even when I get to the AAT the department generally says, 'Oh, well, in that case, we'd better let you have a lot of it.'