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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Victorian FOI 'reform' passes lower house

Last week in Victoria saw government aspirations about improving transparency and accountability clash with a hefty dose of reality.

The aspiration was there with the release of the 2008 Statement of Government Intentions, with a website devoted to informing the public of the Government's plans and encouraging public input. In speaking to the statement in Parliament on 5 February, the Premier said that the Government stayed true to the values of fairness, democracy and opportunity - "by democracy I mean striving to give every Victorian a chance to participate in the debates and decisions that shape their state". Sounds good.

The reality came later that day in the resumed debate in the Parliament on the Government's Bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act. Page 31 - 64 of the Hansard for 5 February. There was plenty of use of choice quotes from the Ombudsman's 2006 special report on the Act, particularly regarding delay and political interference in decision making.

Even allowing for some political point scoring, Opposition speakers were able to illustrate how poorly particular FOI applications have been handled, including lots of stories of high cost and legal technicality. As the Member for Bulleen (pg. 43) recounts three requests to the Premier's Office resulted first in a query about what he meant by 'reviews and investigations', then another about what was meant by 'purchases and expenditure', and finally what he meant by 'documents'. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition recounted how she had won a case before the Tribunal, to be advised by a government agency that the matter would go to the Supreme Court and it would be seeking costs if it won (a threat subsequently withdrawn, and the Government again lost).

After five hours of debate, the Government chose not to respond, and pushed the Bill through to a vote on 7 February gagging the Opposition amendments to the Bill.

Speakers rightly pointed to a whole series of problems with the proposed amendments (many of which have been mentioned here previously). As the Government doesn't control the Legislative Council, some of its proposals will be strongly resisted there. The 'vexatious applicant' provision which would empower the Tribunal to find that an applicant is vexatious is cited as a major potential problem because the lodgment of a Tribunal application would have the effect of stopping the processing of any applications in the applicant's name.

The Bill itself is a half hearted attempt at reform. The Government would be well advised to have another think about how to enliven democracy through real change in the law, policies and procedures that encourage broader access to government information.

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