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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Tasmanian Parliament hiding bold step under a bushel

Although no-one is shouting it from rooftops, Tasmania is to be the first Australian jurisdiction to bring the Parliament within the scope of information access law as a result of a provision in the Right to Information Act that appears to make information concerning administration of the Parliament accessible under the Act .This didn't rate a mention in the Minister's Second Reading speech in Parliament, wasn't referred to in materials issued during the review process such as the Directions Paper early in the year, or the Overview presentation in April 2009, and apart from a couple of jocular exchanges during the debate in the Legislative Council, wasn't mentioned in hours of debate about the detail of the Bill in Parliament.Notwithstanding, its a groundbreaking development and a step ahead of everywhere else in the country where Parliament is either not an organisation of the kind covered by Freedom of Information acts and similar laws, or has been specifically excluded.

The reason for the silence may be that it is not exactly up in lights from a reading of the Act. The clue lies in Section 6, under the unlikely heading "Exclusions of certain persons or bodies." The section provides (emphasis added):

(1) This Act does not apply to information in the possession of the following persons or public authorities, or in the possession of a person whose services are provided or procured for the purposes of assisting the person or public authority, unless the information relates to the administration of the relevant public authority:

(a) the Governor;
(b) a court;
(c) a tribunal;
(d) the Integrity Commission;
(e) a judge;
(f) an associate judge;
(g) a magistrate;
(h) the Solicitor-General;
(i) the Director of Public Prosecutions;
(j) the Ombudsman;
(k) the Auditor-General;
(l) the State Service Commissioner;
(m) the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner;
(n) the Public Guardian;
(o) the Health Complaints Commissioner;
(p) Parliament;
(q) a Member of Parliament.

The Act 's provisions concerning access rights, publication and disclosure are framed in terms of obligations and duties of a public authority (and irrelevantly for this discussion a Minister) -see for example sections 3 and 7.

First issue: is Parliament a public authority? You would expect so otherwise why refer to it in Section 6 - although I'm struggling to understand the significance of the inclusion of a Member of Parliament.

The only part of the definition
of public authority in Section 5 that appears relevant is (e) a body, whether corporate or unincorporate, that is established by or under an Act for a public purpose.

Second issue: is the Tasmanian Parliament (and the Governor, added to the list in Section 6 as a result of an amendment in the House of Assembly put forward by the Opposition Leader Will Hodgman, and accepted by the Government) a body estabished by an Act for a public purpose?

The Constitution Act 1934 (the Preamble refers to earlier legislation concerning governance arrangements for the purpose of securing peace, welfare, and good government, now consolidated into this Act) states (Section 10)
"The Governor and the Legislative Council and House of Assembly shall together constitute the Parliament of Tasmania."
Conclusion: unless there is a quibble from a constitutional law perspective (admission-I'm no expert on this or Tasmanian law generally) it is clear, although not readily apparent from the discussion in Tasmania so far, that the Parliament (and as part of the Parliament and separately, the Governor) as a public authority will be subject to the Right to Information Act with respect to information in its possession that relates to matters of administration. This would include payments to and acquittals by members, and other use of public funds managed by the offices of the clerks. I'm still unclear about what results from the inclusion of a Member of Parliament in Section 6. Two relevant pieces of that puzzle. A member of a public authority is an officer of the authority (definition of officer in Section 5). As a result any information a member holds that relates to administration of Parliament is taken to be held by the Parliament. Section 5(3) of the Act provides:
"For the purpose of the definition of “information in the possession of a public authority”, a public authority is taken to be in possession of information if the public authority is entitled to the information.."

Will other jurisdictions follow this important Tasmanian lead?

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