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Monday, December 10, 2007

WA privacy and FOI bills "debated" and onto next stage

The Western Australian Information Privacy Bill, and Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, which have been sitting on the Notice Paper since March have made progress, both passing the Legislative Assembly, and now await action by the Legislative Council.

The standard of parliamentary debate on any subject varies enormously, but debate on these two bills was, to be polite, "ordinary". The speakers on the Information Privacy Bill (including on occasion the Attorney General who had introduced it) seemed to be scratching around for questions and answers. (The debate is in Legislative Assembly Hansard 27 November. Pages are not numbered. You can find it by reference to time.The debate commenced at 8.34pm and concluded at 10.22pm).

Throughout the almost two hours, no one mentioned the Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into Australian privacy laws, and the many questions raised in the course of its work since early 2006 about the Federal and other state privacy laws that provide the model for WA. The WA bill will apply to the public and private sector in the handling of health information. The ALRC has pointed out that state laws of this kind overlap the Federal Privacy Act and are one of the causes of complexity and confusion that should be eliminated.

Having waited years for the WA Government to act on an election commitment to introduce privacy laws, it might have been sensible to hold off on this until the ALRC reports in March 2008.

The main point of debate about the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill was about the Government's proposal to remove the authority to decide whether a document is exempt from the Information Commissioner and give it to the state Administrative Tribunal. (The debate is in Legislative Assembly Hansard 28 November - in 2 tranches: 3.12pm to 4.03pm and 7.04pm to 7.48pm).

The Opposition took this issue up strongly, pointing out that it ran counter to the views of experts including Rick Snell of the University of Tasmania. The Attorney General said that Snell and others had been consulted about the proposal, but said the critics had wrongly assumed that the state Tribunal would be as legalistic as the Federal Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

I think time will prove the critics right. An Information Commissioner, properly resourced and with statutory clout, has every chance to provide speedy resolution of FOI matters, while the experience everywhere is that tribunals tend to be dominated by lawyers, and prove slow, costly and conservative in the interpretation and application of the law.

It's a stretch to label what transpired in the Assembly after the dinner break (in the 7.04pm - 7.48pm timeslot) as "debate". Those interested in whether WA is getting value for money from its politicians might read this and weep.

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