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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Press Council awards 2017 Press Freedom Medals

Media Release  APC 19 May 2017.

"The Australian Press Council has awarded its Press Freedom Medal to two outstanding individuals for their major contributions to ensuring a free and open society:
Peter Timmins - Australian Open Government Partnership Network
and Michael Cameron - News Corp Australia.

The 2017 Press Freedom Medals were awarded at a special ceremony in Sydney on 19 May. As well as members of the Press Council, journalists and guests from a variety of organisations attended.

Peter Timmins is a well-known advocate of improved standards of transparency and accountability and Australia's leading expert on Freedom of Information (FOI) policy and privacy, as well as being a leader of the Australian Open Government Partnership Network and publisher of the Open and Shut blog.

Michael Cameron is the National Editorial Counsel for News Corp Australia. He leads an in-house legal team, which he established, whose members have appeared in dozens of matters involving challenges to suppression orders, injunctions, defamation actions and so on, advocating for transparency and open justice.

"The purpose of the Australian Press Council is to promote responsible journalism to inform the Australian public and support effective democratic institutions. This year's winners have been exemplary in their tireless pursuit of the critical principle that citizens have a right to know, and so governments, and other important public and private institutions, must operate in an open and transparent manner," said Chair Professor David Weisbrot.

"Although the Press Council did not set off with this intention, this year's Press Freedom Medal winners prove the point that free speech and press freedom are not only reliant on brave and capable editors and journalists, but also on lawyers, activists and others who fight to preserve and extend these freedoms."

Michael Cameron said: "I'm honoured to accept this award on behalf of the editorial legal team at News Corp Australia, whose tireless work enables the publication of articles that would be otherwise be barred by our unduly secretive courts system and plaintiff-friendly defamation laws. Special thanks goes to Larina Mullins, our senior litigation counsel, who has appeared at close to 100 suppression hearings in the last three years."

Peter Timmins said: "This is a great but unexpected honour, a tribute to the many individuals and organisations including the Press Council that believe strongly in open, transparent and accountable government and joined the network to seek to ensure the government lives up to its Open Government Partnership commitments. Pursuing reform to improve our democracy is a never-ending journey."

The Press Council has awarded Press Freedom Medals in earlier years, but it was reserved for people affiliated with the organisation. It was decided last year to revitalise the award and open it up to people who, through their work as journalists, legal practitioners, community activists or advocates, help ensure the preservation of free speech, press freedom and open and transparent government.

In May 2016, Kate McClymont of Fairfax Media and Paul Maley of News Corp Australia received the first of the medals awarded under the new criteria, to great acclaim.
Read the award citations here."


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Mark Colvin, thanks and farewell

Vale Mark Colvin, a great sense of sadness at his death.

I met him once. when he looked like this.

In the 1980s he interviewed me for a Four Corners program on the Freedom of Information Act, whether it was working or not.

All the footage of that interview ended up on the cutting room floor.

I never held it against him.

Probably great editorial judgment about what to leave out of the program that went to air!

But what a wonderful companion by remote for years particularly for the last 20 at 6pm during dinner preparation.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Budget 2017: No boost in funding for Australian Information Commissioner.

The appropriation for the Office of Australian Information Commissioner in the 2017-18 Budget is $10.368 million, down from $10.618 million. (An 'efficiency dividend' counts for a reduction of $160,000.) Total funds available in 2017-18 (counting funding available from previous years and other revenue): $19.345 million compared to $19.045 million in 2016-17. 

The average staffing level, 75 is unchanged.

In the three 'out years' appropriations drop to $10.265 million, $8.999 million and $9.042 million.

For outcomes measurement purposes the office functions are lumped together in  a single outcome in the Portfolio Budget Statement with budgeted expenses at $14.4 million ($14.988 million in the current year) for
"Provision of public access to Commonwealth Government information, protection of individuals’ personal information, and performance of information commissioner, freedom of information and privacy functions."
The office has extra responsibilities coming in February 2018 when mandatory data breach notification requirements will extend to all entities covered by the Privacy Act. Currently notifications are voluntary other than where My Health Records and eHealth are concerned.

As in previous years you have to wonder about performance measures (pp 251-252) that set 12 months as the target for dealing with some matters. For example

Handling privacy complaints
80% of privacy complaints are finalised within 12 months (on track to meet target).


Provide a timely and effective Information Commissioner review function
80% of Information Commissioner reviews are completed within 12 months (on track to meet target).
Handling FOI complaints

Providing an Information Commissioner review function

Handling FOI complaints

80% of FOI complaints are finalised within 12 months (on track to meet target).

80% of Information Commissioner reviews are completed within 12 months.
80% of FOI complaints are finalised within 12 months.

Who measures what here?
Promoting awareness and understanding of .. information access rights in the community

FOI education and information products meet stakeholder needs (on track to meet target).

Some targets may not be met:
Handling voluntary and mandatory data breach notifications (DBNs)
80% of DBNs are handled or escalated to CII within 60 days (on track to meet target).
80% of eHealth DBNs are handled or escalated to CII within 60 days (not on track to meet target)

Conducting assessments
The median time for the completion of assessments is six months (not on track to meet target).

Providing a public information service
100% of enquiries are finalised within 10 days (not on track to meet target).

Own motion FOI investigations get a mention in the performance measures table which may mean something is in the works:

Conducting FOI Commissioner-initiated investigations
80% of FOI CIIs are finalised within eight months.

Two investigation reports have been published since the office was established in 2010, one in 2012, the most recent in 2014.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

People are talking about integrity; governments should be listening and acting

The Transparency International Australia National Integrity 2017 conference in Brisbane last week brought together 160 government, business and civil society delegates from all corners of Australia, including senior legal figures, heads of integrity agencies, federal, state and local parliamentarians, community groups, corporate leaders and individual TI Australia members.

Lots of energy at the conference and a perceptible whiff that positive change is in the air with more voices calling for improvements in integrity in the public and corporate sectors.

The release of a major paper canvassing key issues for the design of a federal anti-corruption commission was one of many highlights.

Here's me giving a rundown on lessons learned from Australia's experience in developing the national action plan required as a result of the commitment by PM Turnbull in December 2015 to join the Open Government Partnership. Someone told me the only thing missing from the timeline diagram are the snakes and ladders.

And in a panel discussion with Queensland Attorney General Yvette D'ath and James Ensor BHP Billiton.

Hat tip to Queensland for leading the nation on real-time disclosure of political donations, which follows publication of minister appointment diaries, and reporting and publication on lobbying contacts. 
(They should do better with reporting on parliamentarians use of entitlements.)

Hat tip to BHP Billiton- no to political party donations, yes to publicly available information on beneficial ownership of corporate entities, action in reporting on payments to government....
(They and the business community generally are rarely heard on the topic of good government and could and should speak up.)

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Diary Wars; Who ministers plan to meet in the course of their duties should be no state secret.

 Crikey this morning
"A monumental waste of everyone's time." That's how shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus has described the three-year battle to release Attorney General George Brandis' diary for the months leading up to the 2014 budget. Brandis has finally released a heavily redacted version of his diary, after challenging Dreyfus' freedom of information request all the way to the Federal Court, which ordered Brandis to hand over the diary in September. So what does it show? The 34-page printout of his Outlook calendar doesn't include any meetings with community legal centres, which had their funding slashed in the 2014 budget. The Attorney-General's office says this isn't the whole story though, as the diary doesn't show meetings made at short notice or by the Attorney-General himself.

The only correction to this and Adam Gartrell's longer piece in the Sydney Morning Herald is that the Federal Court ruled there was no valid reason for the refusal by Brandis' office to  process the FOI application. Six months ago it ordered the office to do so.

The Attorney General took offence in Senate estimates in February at suggestions his office may be in contempt of a Federal Court order to process the application by shadow AG Dreyfus for entries in his appointments diary for the three months before the 2014 budget:
"That is a very serious allegation In order to assert that there has been a contempt of court it is necessary to show that the order of the court has not been complied with. There has been no noncompliance with any order of any court. The order of the full court of the Federal Court was merely that the appeal be dismissed with costs. The order of Justice Jagot in the AAT was—and I will read it to you again: 'That the decision that there is a practical refusal reason be set aside,' so that was set aside, and 'that no practical refusal reason exists'. That is the order. It was not an injunctive order. It was not a direction to me or to the decision maker or to anyone.
It took three years in total for the office to get the job done.

Senator Brandis in Opposition in 2009 of course nailed it with this comment: (Senate Hansard13 August 2009
Senator Brandis.....The true measure of the openness and transparency of a government is found in its attitudes and actions when it comes to freedom of information. Legislative amendments, when there is need for them, are fine, but governments with their control over the information in their possession can always find ways to work the legislation to slow or control disclosure. That is the practice we are seeing now under the Rudd government, whose heroic proclamations of commitment to freedom of information are falsified by the objective evidence of their practice.
 It's not the end of the Diary Wars either

As Sean Parnell reported in The Australian in January the Office of the Prime Minister is off to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal contesting the ruling by Australian Information Commissioner Pilgrim that the PM's official diary for his first day in office 16 September 2015 is not exempt and should be released to the applicant, Parnell.

Commissioner Pilgrim accepted that entries concerning meetings with Coalition members who were not serving Ministers, and entries relating to party political events, are to be treated as exempt. But he rejected exemption claims for entries in the electronic calendar recording a meeting time and the name of the person scheduled to meet the PM.

The Commissioner found
  • that  some entries reveal information that would, or could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the international relations of the Commonwealth and could be redacted for that reason
  • that information is unlikely to cause damage to the relations between the Commonwealth and a State, particularly as those entries do not record the content of the proposed discussions. "Other than asserting that damage would occur, PMO has not provided any real and substantial grounds for expecting damage to occur, nor has it provided any evidence supporting this contention
  • that the entries recorded do not contain opinion, advice, recommendation, consultations or deliberations that have taken place. In its confidential submissions, PMO essentially reiterates its reasoning in its decision, and contends that the document functions as a means for deliberation about the management and use of the Prime Minister’s time.I do not agree with PMO that a diary is used for deliberation about the management of a person’s time. This, in my view, is not a weighing up or evaluation of the competing arguments or considerations, and is not a deliberative process for the purposes of s 47C.
The Commissioner did not agree with PMO that disclosure of personal information in this case would be unreasonable. 
"The document records scheduled meetings between the Prime Minister, Ministers, and various individuals. It is my view it would not be controversial or a surprise to anyone that the Prime Minister had scheduled such meetings on his first day in office. Further, there is nothing in the document that would suggest that the personal information is uniquely private or sensitive. Accordingly, I am satisfied that the disclosure of the names of the individuals in this case would not result in an unreasonable disclosure of personal information."
 The Commissioner ruled to the same effect on an application by Josh Thomas Taylor (apologies) for Communications and Arts Minister Mitch Fifield’s diary entries for a three month period in 2015. 

There's a better way than this of course-publish appointment diaries as Queensland and the NSW government and many others do.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Has the PM answered the call: An integrity agenda for 2017?

The Prime Minister in conjunction with the resignation of Health minister Sussan Ley has announced a commitment to further changes to the parliamentary entitlements system.

The changes go beyond the recommendations in the Conde report already accepted in principle and according to an earlier announcement to be acted upon in the first half of 2017.

The PM:
"Australians are entitled to expect that politicians spend taxpayers' money carefully, ensuring at all times that their work expenditure represents an efficient, effective and ethical use of public resources," he said. "We should be, as politicians, backbenchers and ministers, we should be as careful and as accountable with taxpayers' money as we possibly can be." Mr Turnbull also announced that a new body overseeing parliamentary expenses would be created.
"The Government believes that the work expenses of parliamentarians, including ministers, should be administered and overseen by an independent agency," he said.
"An independent parliamentary expenses authority will be a compliance, reporting and transparency body. It will monitor and adjudicate all claims by MPs, senators and ministers, ensuring that taxpayers' funds are spent appropriately and in compliance with the rules."

Describing transparency as key, Mr Turnbull said the new system would allow the public to view expenses in "as close to real time" as possible. "The system that manages entitlements will be modernised to allow monthly disclosure of parliamentarians' expenses in an accessible — that is to say, searchable — format," he said."[Currently] Most of the forms are filled in by the politicians by hand. It is all paper-based. The reports that you do find on the Department of Finance website are big PDF files. They are, you know, months out-of-date when they are posted."
Welcome news.

As per usual the devil is in the detail, yet to come.

A few thoughts:
  • Apart from Conde there are recommendations not acted upon in a number of auditor general reports stretching back to 2001-2002 and from the Belcher committee report in 2010. Hopefully they haven't been lost in time.
  • No mention so far of a Code of Conduct for Parliamentarians. Maybe the legislation the PM has in mind will go further than a code when it comes to responsibilities. Great. However the Coalition in 2010 wouldn't have a bar of it when John Faulkner tried to persuade Parliament to introduce a code.
  • "Parliamentarians entitlements"paid by Finance are only part of the picture. Some payments are made to or on behalf of members and senators by the Parliamentary departments, including support for and the cost of hospitality incurred by the Presiding officers. These payments currently are not  published. Parliament in 2013 excluded the parliamentary departments from the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Each department pays for the costs involved in supporting its minister, including official hospitality and who knows what else. These expenditures currently are not published.
  • The PM is right to state parliamentarians must be "as accountable with taxpayers' money as we possibly can be."Transparency and accountability should also extend to searchable information about declarations of interest (PM- they're in PDF files), contact with lobbyists ( PM-not published), and political donations (PM-can be published up to 18 months after the event.)
  • A parliamentary expenses authority should help keep things within reasonable limits. However a government serious about integrity would accept that a Federal anti-corruption body is also much needed.
As Peter Hartcher in making similar points in Fairfax Media recently said
"The cause of cleaning up Canberra is an inevitable one. The only question is who will best do it, and whether the energy will be channelled constructively to fix our democracy or destructively to make it weaker."
Trust and confidence 

Before the 2016 election campaign got underway the Roy Morgan Annual Survey revealed Federal Politicians are rated highly on Ethics and Honesty by 17% (up 4% in a year), putting them 23 of 30 professions included in the survey.

As scored on ABC Vote Watch the Prime Minister finished the election campaign in July with a personal trust rating of 4.5 out of 10, Bill Shorten 3.7 and Greens leader Di Natale 3.9.

According to the ANU Post Election 2016 Survey 74% agree "People in government look after themselves." Only 26% say "People in government can be trusted."

The PM knows all this. As he said in July last year:
"There is no doubt that there is a level of disillusionment with politics, with government, and with the major parties. Our own included. We note that. We respect it," Turnbull said. Now, we need to listen very carefully to the concerns of the Australian people expressed through this election. We need to look at how we will address those concerns that's what the Deputy Prime Minister and I have been discussing today. There are lessons to be learned from this election."
On the other hand we've heard good intentions before.

Tony Abbott before the 2013 election as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Abbott's first priority if he wins the election will be to seek to rebuild Australians' confidence in government and restore civility to the national political discourse after three bruising years of minority government.
''The greatest deficit in our country at the moment is the trust deficit. Sure we have got a very serious budget deficit, but the trust deficit is even more serious. I would hope that, should we win the election, I would be able to so conduct myself and my team would be able to so conduct themselves that by the end of the first term people would have once more concluded that Australian government was competent and trustworthy
 We live in hope for 2017.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Happy days!

Dear Neglected Reader,

I've been otherwise occupied for large chunks of this year in my role as interim Convener of the Australian Open Government Partnership Network.

Postings in this our tenth year suffered I'm afraid.

Loads of things I planned to bring to your attention... but alas, 140 characters was sometimes the best I could manage. (Follow @FOIguru)

The good news is that after a a bumpy, frequently interrupted less than perfect process, Australia now has a national action plan with 15 commitments that constitute a broad program of reforms. 

Some of those commitments will be of particular interest to you:

1.3 Extractive industries transparency
Australia will enhance disclosure of company payments and government revenues from the oil, gas and mining sectors. We will do this by implementing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) Standard (including working to enhance company disclosure of payments to governments for the sale of petroleum and minerals) and by continuing to support the application of EITI principles around the world.

2.1 Release high-value datasets and enable data-driven innovation

Australia will continue to make more public data openly available and support its use to launch commercial and non-profit ventures, conduct research, make data-driven decisions, and solve complex problems. As part of this, we will work with the research, not-for-profit and private sectors to identify the characteristics of high-value public datasets, and to promote innovative use of data to drive social and economic outcomes.

2.2 Build and maintain public trust to address concerns about data sharing and release

Australia will build public trust around data sharing and release. We will do this by actively engaging with the public regarding how open data is being used to better communicate the benefits and understand public concerns, and we will improve privacy risk management capability across government.

3.1 Information management and access laws fit for the 21st Century

Australia will ensure our information access laws, policies and practices are modern and appropriate for the digital information age. As part of this, we will consider and consult on options to develop a simpler and more coherent framework for managing and accessing government information that better reflects the digital era, including the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act), the Archives Act 1983 (Archives Act) and, where relevant, the Privacy Act 1988 (with primary focus on the Archives Act and FOI Act), which is supported by efficient and effective policies and practices.

3.2 Understand the use of Freedom of Information
Australia will better measure and improve our understanding of the public’s use of rights under freedom of information laws. We will do this by working with states and territories to develop uniform metrics on public use of freedom of information access rights, and by collecting and publishing this data.

3.3 Improve the discoverability and accessibility of government data and information

Australia will make it easier for the public to find, access and use government data and information. We will do this by making greater use of central portals, digital platforms and other tools to improve discoverability and accessibility.

4.3 Open Contracting

Australia will ensure transparency in government procurement and continue to support the Open Contracting Global Principles. As part of this, we will publicly review the Australian Government’s compliance with the Open Contracting Data Standard.

The complete plan was published on 7 December.

If you support more open transparent government please give consideration to joining the like minded who have pushed the government hard on this over the last 12 months and plan to stick with it as attention moves to implementation. See the Get Involved Tab on the Network Homepage

Now time for a bit of a breather so best wishes.

Will be back in the new year, refreshed and with best intentions to do a better job on Open and Shut in 2017.

By Anne Dirkse ( (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 02, 2016

Freedom of Information: 250 years since Sweden laid the first cornerstone

On 2 December 1766 Sweden enacted what is regarded as the first freedom of information law.

The most recent translation into English was done by Ian Giles and Peter Graves, Scandinavian Studies, University of Edinburgh and released on 7th October 2016 in Edinburgh.

The Australian information commissioners and the New Zealand Ombudsman have issued the  statement below to mark the occasion.

From the Australian perspective as we wait for release of the government's first Open Government Partnership National Action, thought to be next week, let's hope for a commitment to necessary reforms that truly recognises the right to access government information "is a cornerstone of modern democratic society." 

Cornerstone- a foundation stone, mainstay, linchpin, centrepiece, core, heart, backbone, anchor.

Submissions on this aspect of the draft commitment released by the government for public comment on 31 October suggested the cornerstone is in need of close inspection, fundamental repair and some design work to make it fit for the 21st century.

Joint Media Statement

"The right to access government held information and our ongoing commitment to Open Government is a cornerstone of modern democratic society. 

We mark the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the first freedom of information legislation on 2 December 2016. We do this to acknowledge the important contribution that freedom of information has made to the effectiveness of democratic government across the world since 1766. Freedom of information enables citizens to access information held by governments and their agencies. Having access to Government held information is critical to citizens being able to meaningfully participate in Government decision making.

Access to information and participation in government processes contributes to the transparency of government – promoting better decision making, accountability and greater public trust. This is the key contribution freedom of information has to make to our modern democratic government."

Co-signed by:

Sven Bluemmel, Western Australian Information Commissioner

Richard Connock, Tasmania’s Ombudsman

Michael Ison, Acting Victorian Freedom of Information Commissioner

Wayne Lines, South Australia’s Ombudsman

Brenda Monaghan, Northern Territory Information Commissioner

Timothy Pilgrim, PSM, Australian Information Commissioner

Jenny Mead, Acting Queensland Information Commissioner

Elizabeth Tydd, NSW Information Commissioner and Open Data Advocate

Judge Peter Boshier, New Zealand Chief Ombudsman

Leo Donnelly, New Zealand Ombudsman

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Australian National Audit Office taking a peek at FOI efficiency and effectiveness

We know auditors go about their work quietly....

Even so I was surprised to learn recently that the Australian National Audit Office has underway a performance audit Administration of the Freedom of Information Act:

Entities: Attorney-General’s Department; Office of the Australian Information Commissioner; Department of Social Services; Department of Veterans' Affairs.
Objective: To assess the effectiveness and efficiency of entities’ implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 1982.

Audit Criteria:
  1. The Attorney-General’s Department and Office of the Australian Information Commissioner effectively and efficiently perform their respective roles in providing guidance and assistance to entities and monitoring compliance with the FOI Act.
  2. The selected entities effectively and efficiently process FOI document access requests.
  3. The selected entities release relevant information under the Information Publication Scheme (IPS).
Wikimedia Commons:Paty Montano
Mention of the audit first appeared on the ANAO website in August in their yearly work plan.It likely passed unnoticed the rest of us who take an interest in the subject and those with relevant experience with the selected entities who might have something useful to contribute on the score of efficiency and effectiveness.

The ANAO last had a look into FOI functions in Administration of Freedom of Information Requests in 2004.

The audit page on the website until 31 October invited public contributions to the current audit.

Contributions are now closed.

In a hurry I managed to make a few suggestions about what ANAO should look into before the office continued quietly on its business:

See insights into agency practices from the correspondence arising from applications made through Right to Know

"Tone at the top" in light of the absence of positive supportive statements from ministers and negative comments from senior public servants including Public Service Commissioner Lloyd who described FOI as 'very pernicious' and told a parliamentary committee that in his view the original purpose of FOI was to enable access to the individual's personal information.

The effect on efficiency and effectiveness of funding decisions since May 2014 on the operations of the Office of Australian Information Commissioner including the pattern of acting appointments and the decision recently to appoint one commissioner not three as prescribed by the Australian Information Commissioner Act.

The effect on compliance, efficiency and effectiveness if the agencies concerned follow the practices revealed in the Cornall Report on FOI processing in Department of Immigration: by providing five days notice of decisions on access to non-personal documents to the minister's office. 

The effect on efficiency and effectiveness in managing the FOI functions separately in a Legal Branch or Division rather than as part of a broader information management framework

FOI practice at the Attorney General's Department and what this might say about culture: See case study.

Whether the agencies reviewed have an administrative access scheme as recommended by the OAIC and if not the effect on efficiency and effectiveness as a result of processing all applications as formal requests under the FOI act.

The extent to which unnecessary third party consultation is undertaken including with other agencies

Whether the agencies regularly review pro-active release of information beyond statutory publication requirements and the scope for efficiency gains from such a management practice. As an example the FOI publishing requirement does not extend to the Gift Register. These agencies (and others) do not publish information of this kind.

The extent to which decision makers are encouraged to reach the right decision the first time and the cost savings that could be achieved compared to the cost of contesting, often conceding ground at internal review, OAIC review, in the AAT or in the courts.

Whether these agencies seek to ascertain what information key stakeholders might nominate for improved access, or seek feedback from FOI applicants on the way an application was handled-responses could lead to efficiency savings and improvements in effectiveness.

The practice in Attorney General's of not publishing released documents on their Disclosure Log contrary to OAIC guidance to agencies