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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sunshine and rain on Right to Know Day

Right to Know Day 28 September- great to see traffic on the twitter feeds including plenty from Australia at #RighttoKnow

While observance has been trending in the right direction in recent years, its another step in the right direction given Right to Know Day often passed virtually unnoticed here.

Something positive from the highest levels of government on the importance of the right to know would be a welcome development but alas..

So too, with three ministers in New York last week, an Australian presence at the Fifth Anniversary Celebration of the Open Government Partnership would have indicated strong interest and commitment as well.

Alas again....

Further rain amid the sunshine:
 The Center for Law and Democracy in Toronto and Access Info Europe used the occasion to publish an updated Global Right to Information Rating, analysing the quality of the world's access to information laws.

The Australian legislative framework (the Federal Freedom of Information Act) comes in 56 of 111 rated, down four places since the previous assessment.

Mexico tops the list, and of particular interest UK 33, NZ 40, Canada 48 and USA 55.

Among the eye raisers, Russia 34, China 80, Japan 90, France 94, Germany 105 and Austria 111.

You can quibble with some of the scoring in the Australian assessment where we receive 83 points of a possible 150-in a few areas the assessor in my opinion has been off the money -  but  overall the act, hailed in its time in 1982 as up there with the best, is no better these days on these criteria than middle of the pack.

That's before attention to matters beyond the scope of the rating including
  • outdated features of the act that reflect the 70s rather than the twenty teens, for example one of many, Section 17,
  • the Office of Australian Information Commissioner first under threat of closure, then the government's failure to fill positions established by Parliament or fully fund the FOI watchdog role and the office information policy functions,
  • the 'tone at the top'  as a result of the absence of positive leadership and support for transparent accountable government at the same time as senior public servants speak out critical of the law generally ('very pernicious') and about its impact on their capacity to do their job, 
  • the interpretation and practical application of the law in some agencies that give rise to the epithet 'freedom from' rather than 'freedom of' information. Sarah Gill of The Age on Fairfax Media yesterday in "Have we reached peak secrecy?" pulled together some examples, arguing
"Despite the Turnbull government's professed enthusiasm for transparency and accountability, (ie membership of the OGP) this year – marked by a shroud of secrecy over border protection, the targeting of whistleblowers, and the intransigence of the Attorney-General around the release of his diary – could well be the low point for open government in Australia since Freedom of Information laws were introduced three decades ago."
Andrew Dyson SMH
Peak Secrecy? Give hope a chance?
Despite the validity of the examples cited and others that could be added, there are plenty of contenders for the 'peak secrecy' award over the last thirty years that IMO, would beat out the 15 months of the Turnbull era on display so far. The implacable attachment to the conclusive ministerial certificate during the Howard years and the eleven years it managed to ignore any positive reform for example.

As I commented at the six month mark, the record of the Turnbull government suggests hope as well as disappointment.

Six months on, membership of the Open Government Partnership, the yet to be completed National Action Plan of commitments to reform, and the Prime Minister's endorsement of the goals of the OGP as consistent with "Australia's long and proud tradition of open and transparent government" gives hope some chance.

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