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Thursday, August 28, 2014

FOI Commissioner gets a hand from legislative changes but FOI itself in bad shape in Victoria

The Victorian Parliament last week passed the Freedom of Information and Victorian Inspectorate Acts Amendment Bill 2014.It comes into force the day after proclamation, so any time now, maybe already - there's no mention of it on the Freedom of Information Commissioner's website at present.

As summarised when the bill was introduced in June the FOI changes are minor in comparison to the wholesale rewrite (Victorian FOI law weakest in the country, says expert Dr Johan Lidberg) needed not to mention embrace of the spirit and intent first advocated 30 years ago by then premier John Cain. 

However in providing for the appointment of Assistant Freedom of Information Commissioners authorised to make decisions, and ensuring that many of the functions of the Freedom of Information Commissioner may be undertaken by, or delegated to, members of staff, the amendments may help to reduce the backlog in review matters piling into the intray.

These changes are in line with those advocated for his own patch by Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan to no effect, before the current  Federal attorney general announced the government's intention to abandon the whole show, a retrograde step for the transparency and accountability cause.

The Victorian bill also will "provide greater guidance in relation to time limits and notification requirements by, and to, the Freedom of Information Commissioner (and) facilitate the effective and informal resolution of reviews and complaints." The Second Reading Speech and this Summary by Melanie Olynyk of Maddocks give a fuller outline.

Debate in the Legislative Assembly (Hansard 2661-2664) was lacklustre. The Government accepted one amendment moved by the Opposition: when a matter is either referred back to an agency by the FOI Commissioner for consideration or when the agency decides to reconsider a matter at the time before the Commissioner on its own initiative the decision must be made within 28 days not 45 as originally proposed.

The Legislative Council debate on 21 August (Hansard 2686-2691) saw Labor's Marg Lewis (a retired teacher and school principal appointed to fill a casual vacancy in June) and The Greens Greg Barber ( a veteran of many an FOI joust) provide a likely accurate rundown on the poor state of FOI in Victoria.

Separately, Alison Sandy FOI Editor Seven Network recently wrote of these negative experiences in using the Victorian Freedom of Information Act.

With an election due in November, any Liberal Party assurances about serious intent regarding improved transparency and accountability (like this from then leader Ted Baillieu last time around) will be taken with a grain of salt. 

So too from Labor perhaps given they had plenty of chances during years in office, most recently 1999-2010, to give effect to John Cain's vision and his urging, this in 2008:
"What is needed, 26 years after my government introduced the FOI law, is to have it truly respected by politicians and public servants......The real problem here is public service culture. In some parts it still rejects the notion of FOI. The secrecy and "we know best" syndrome that is cherished in the public sector is alive and well. In these times of the internet, a more enquiring and better educated community, it just does not wash. People want to know things - and so they should...In 1982-3 we sought to "educate" public servants to "live with" FOI. This should be done again.. Community acceptance of public policy is enhanced by full disclosure. If FOI worked properly, it would create a climate where the need for a Crime Commission was diminished. "

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