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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Parliament in top gear to protect its own from FOI scrutiny.

Government and Opposition senators were at one last night in voting to pass the Parliamentary Service Amendment (Freedom of Information) Bill to exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, the Department of Parliamentary Services, the Department of the House of Representatives and the Department of the Senate.The House had already passed the bill. As some legislation takes months or years to make it through this bill was supercharged, needing only one day in the House and two sitting days on the Senate bills list. The reasons advanced for the complete exemption from FOI  are totally unpersuasive.

Minister Senator Conroy for the Government, and Senator Scott Ryan for the Opposition were the only major party speakers. Both sang, albeit briefly and repetitively, from the same song sheet: legislation was necessary, presumably urgently, to restore the longstanding and previously understood position that the departments were not covered by the FOI act, that the discovery that they were covered had caused problems for the parliamentary librarian at least, that this issue be placed beyond doubt, and the move should be seen as an interim measure only.

All regardless of the fact that the terms of reference for the Hawke review of the operation of the FOI act include consideration of "the appropriateness of the range of agencies covered, either in part or in whole", Dr Hawke has completed the review and his report is expected shortly (Minister Conroy at one point, presumably by mistake said the report had been received) and that the three departments in a joint submission to the review did not argue for a complete exemption: 
As publicly resourced agencies, the parliamentary departments support the principle that the administrative documents of any taxpayer-funded agency should be open to scrutiny subject to any claim of appropriate immunity (which the FOI Act exemptions generally reflect).
Those points were put by The Greens Senator Rhiannon

Along with the more general argument that the accountability and transparency framework should apply to all government agencies in principle (and for anti-corruption purposes given the departments administer over $170 million in taxpayers funds); that some of this is spent on entitlements and support for members and senators; that FOI coverage of parliament is accepted in the UK, Scotland, South Africa, India, Ireland, Mexico and Tasmania; and that the Australian Law Reform Commission and former clerk of the Senate Harry Evans to name just two supported extension of the act to the departments. Then there's the Prime Minister's 2010 breezy, "let's draw back the curtains and let the sun shine in; let our parliament be more open than it ever was before.."

Given government and opposition unanimity on the issue it was destined to sail through the Senate.

The Greens senators, Senator Xenophon and the DLP Senator Madigan registered the only votes in support of a series of amendments proposed by Senator Rhiannon to try to salvage some element of credibility and a baseline for public trust in the parliament. 

But their 11 votes were no match for the combined 30 on the other side on each of these motions:
First shot:
That FOI coverage be limited to matters of an administrative nature, specifically:
a) statistical information about the activities of the Department; 
(b) information about the expenditure of public moneys; or
(c) information about payments to a Senator or member of the House of Representatives; or
(d) information about services and facilities provided to a Senator or member of the House of Representatives; or
(e) information about assets, resources, support systems and other administrative matters of the Department.
With all the things the government and opposition said they were worried about  also specifically excluded.

Hard to oppose? No, no dice.

Second shot: 
That the FOI act does not apply to any request for access  unless the document relates to matters of an administrative nature.
(2) For the avoidance of doubt, the reference to a document of an administrative nature  does not include research or advice provided to a Senator or a member of the House of Representatives by the Parliamentary Library.

A bit easier to support? No, no dice. 

Third shot:
That the Parliamentary Allowances Act be amended so that a member is only entitled to allowances if the member includes a link to the Department of Finance and Deregulation website in their biographical details on the Australian Parliament website; and the link directs the user to the individual expenditure report of that member.

Surely? No, no dice. 

At least on this one Minister Conroy acknowledged the amendments had merit, but "we believe they should be considered as part of a whole package and so we will not be supporting them."  

Three years ago the Belcher committee review of entitlements made many recommendations that dropped like a stone quickly thereafter including:
  1. That the government’s decision to publish details of all expenditure on parliamentary entitlements administered by the Department of Finance and Deregulation be underpinned with a legislative basis.
  2. That all senators and members be required to provide a link on their official parliamentary websites (at to their individual expenditure reports on the Finance website.
  3. That the presiding officers be encouraged to publish on a regular basis details of expenditure on services and facilities provided to individual senators and members by the chamber departments.(Recommendation 11.)
As to when this or any parliament formed after the September election or beyond will return to the subject of this so-called interim measure, I won't be holding my breath.

Public confidence in politicians and parliament was at an all time low before this. To the extent the public come to know of this legislation, how low might it go?  

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