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Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Major parties respond with faint praise but nothing else to Senator Patrick's FOI reform bill

 In 2018 Senator Rex Patrick sponsored the introduction of the Freedom of Information Legislation Amendment (Improving Access and Transparency) Bill and made the second reading speech, the bill was referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, the Committee report recommended the Senate not pass the bill (Senator Patrick and Greens senators dissenting)......

And there the bill sat until last week when it came on for Senate debate for 70 minutes before time expired.

The major parties did not support the bill in 2018 and reaffirmed that in 2020, so its fate is clear. 

Senator Patrick managed to get an acknowledgement that the government respects the intent to 'make government more transparent and more accountable, to assist citizens and the media to access information under the law and to improve the effectiveness of Australia's freedom-of-information laws' and from Labor that the bill was "well intentioned, and many of the proposals it puts forward warrant close examination' , but that was as far as they went.

Among the remarks worth highlighting:

Senator Amanda Stoker (Queensland, Liberal Party)

The government remains steadfast in its support for transparency, for the value of the freedom-of-information arrangements and for providing substantial funding to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner so that it can do its job of making sure Australians can access important information from governments.... the objectives of transparency, accountability and freedom of information are objectives that are highly valued and shared by this government.

(Spoken apparently with a straight face)

Senator Murray Watt (Queensland ALP)

This government hates scrutiny. This government has contempt for basic notions of accountability. This is a government that prefers to operate in the shadows. It is not difficult to see why, because, every time sunlight does find a way in, Australians do not like what they see. Whether it's sports rorts, Angus Taylor's latest outrage, the awarding of contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to companies headquartered in beach shacks or the government's shocking and scandalous record on aged care, the Morrison government does not want Australians to know what it is up to. Make no mistake: that is why the government hates our FOI laws and treats those laws with such contempt. That is also why the government continues to starve the Information Commissioner of resources—so that it takes the commissioner so long to review a rejected freedom-of-information request that the applicant just gives up.

....since this Liberal government took power in 2013, they have been at war with freedom of information, at war with transparency, at war with accountability to the Australian people, who elected them, so Senator Patrick is to be congratulated for bringing forward this bill, which demonstrates his belief that FOI laws need to be strengthened and in the need to undo some of the harm that the Morrison government has done to our democracy in its trashing of FOI and its obsession with secrecy and cover-up.

(Spoken without reference to the fact Labor has not put forward comprehensive, concrete reforms proposals during seven years in opposition.) 

Senator Larrisa Waters (Queensland Australian Greens)

...this is the least transparent government in history.

(Spoken ignoring the fact any government before 1982 when FOI was introduced would beat all since for the least transparent trophy.)

Senator Paul Scarr (Queensland Liberal Party)

...about resourcing. I think it's a key point, to be frank. It's absolutely a key point. If we are going to have an FOI Act regime, there needs to be appropriate resourcing provided for it. It doesn't matter who's in government; there needs to be that appropriate resourcing. When I read the report of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, page 9, paragraph 2.9 says: 

When asked whether there needed to be more resources at both the early resolution stage, as well as at a later stage, to enable more Information Commissioner reviews to be finalised earlier, Ms Falk stated:

'At this point in time, that's not what I'm seeing. I'm seeing that where I need to focus is on working with government to increase the offices resources to increase the capacity at the case-officer level and potentially, the executive level. If that were to be increased and then have a flow-on effect to more Information Commissioner reviews being required of the commissioner and that being something that's not manageable within other functions then that would be something that I would bring to the attention of government.'

Those are the actual words from the Information Commissioner in the report. In my respectful view, they do not support the characterisation of this matter by Senator Watt,

(Spoken in apparent ignorance of the fact that while the Information Commissioner did say this in 2018, she said something different in Senate Estimates in October 2019:

Senator KIM CARR: Did I hear you correctly in your opening statement? Did you actually say that you're under-funded?  

Ms Falk: I did raise the issue of resourcing in terms of FOI. It's a matter that's been discussed before this committee on a number of occasions, where I've indicated that really where the stresses in the system lie, from the OIC's perspective, are with the need for more staffing. I've set out the fact that we've had an 80 per cent increase in Information Commissioner reviews and I have worked very purposefully since being in the role on looking at how we can increase our efficiency. Over that same period of time—the four-year period—we have increased our efficiency by 45 per cent. But I've formed the view, having conducted a number of reviews of the way in which we're carrying out our work, that the only way in which the gap is to be bridged is for additional staffing resources to be provided


Senator KIM CARR: I see. That's where the confusion lies. So, since August last year, you've been seeking additional support?  

Ms Falk: Sometime after that date, Senator. 

 Senator KIM CARR: And what was the government's response? Ms Falk: The government has acknowledged my request and is working through it in terms of normal budget processes.  


Senator KIM CARR: So how much did you ask for?  

Ms Falk: Senator, you appreciate that the information I've provided to government is through budget processes. I can give you an indication that, at present, my funding envelope allows for around 19 case officers to work on FOI reviews—there are additional staff who work on the FOI function more broadly—but just looking at FOI reviews, there'd need to be at least a half increase in the number of those staff.

 Senator KIM CARR: What you mean by 'a half? 

 Ms Falk: A half again. Senator KIM CARR: So—Ms Falk: Another nine staff. 


Senator KIM CARR: What will that cost in terms of your normal profile?


Senator KIM CARR: Can you take that on notice, please?  

The OAIC subsequently provided this response to the question: 

"The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has estimated that the annual cost to fund nine (9) additional staff to undertake FOI regulatory work, including processing IC review applications, would be approximately A$1.65 million with an additional capital amount of approximately A$0.3 million for accommodation in the first year." 


We live in hope....