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Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Unnecessary debate" still running, fast trains aren't

Michael McKinnon of the 7 Network told the Right to Know Day Conference in Brisbane on Tuesday that he had applied immediately under the Freedom of Information Act to the Department of Transport for documents concerning the proposal for a high speed train when it was raised during the election campaign, only to be told then, as reported this week in Fairfax papers, that disclosure was contrary to the public interest because it was an ''incomplete picture unlikely to make a valuable contribution to public debate. ''Indeed, its nature is such that release would likely lead to confusion and unnecessary debate about issues that are not settled within government."

McKinnon said following the knockback Reporter Mark Riley had "monstered" Minister Albanese over the refusal, with the result that the minister decided to release to 7 a briefing note on the subject. The Department's view that fast trains are unviable of course is not the only or definitive assessment, but who other than the Department, obviously edgy about  Labor's commitment of $20 million for a limited study, would argue that release wouldn't make a valuable contribution during the campaign to public debate?

The good news is that the minister showed leadership, after the election, in the shuffle towards more open and transparent government. A big advance on Wayne Swan's "don't blame me, I'm only the Treasurer" response when his department ran this argument to protect documents from disclosure in May 2008.

The bad news is that we are still apparently a long way from routine disclosure of information of this kind, that a minister who should be flat out on other things had to get involved, that knocking on a minister's door to get attention is a course unlikely to be available to John and Mary Citizen in similar circumstances, and that some are still clinging to hoary old chesnuts like this, when come 1 November "unnecessary debate" is finished as a consideration relevant to a decision about the public interest in disclosure of documents.

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