House debates

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Matters of Public Importance

Rudd Government

5:00 pm

Photo of Philip RuddockPhilip Ruddock (Berowra, Liberal Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | Hansard source

I interrupted the member because I do not think he was addressing the topic. The topic clearly is the failure of the government to honour its explicit commitment to act with integrity. I know that the classic method of dealing with an argument that you cannot meet is to essentially attack your opponents. What we have heard from the government members who have spoken is a typical Labor attack. That is, if you cannot debate the issue you play the man. That is what we have seen. I am about to talk about the issue, because this is about a government that argued, in opposition, that it would restore trust and integrity. It did so in relation to access to information. I would like to quote the Minister for Defence, John Faulkner, who said:

Information is also the lifeblood of democracy … It is fundamental to openness in government, that cornerstone of government integrity. And achieving more openness in government is the Government’s goal.

They went with a policy on freedom of information that was designed to elicit support particularly from the press. They argued that they would break the code of silence that had developed over 11 years of the Howard government. They said:

Access to government information and decision-making are keys to a healthy and vibrant democracy.

They went on to say:

A more open system for obtaining reasonable access to government records is the mark of a strong democracy. In addition, it is essential that we keep a strong system in place to protect the privacy of individuals.

I mention those matters because I think they go to integrity. I agree with the statements that were made by the then opposition about the importance of integrity, and I would like to look at whether or not they have achieved anything in that regard in the two years, two months and two weeks that they have been in office. It is quite clear that any pretence of pursuing freedom of information by this government has lapsed. They have introduced a Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill and an Information Commissioner Bill 2009, but although those bills were expected to be passed and in place by January of this year, they still have not seen passage.

As the Senate is considering this matter, we know that it is more likely that, rather than dealing with greater access to information, the government’s proposals will inhibit access to information—in other words, rather than creating a culture of disclosure it is more likely that they will close off opportunities for people to get access to information. In Senate committee hearings recently, it has been drawn to attention that, in relation to appealing decisions to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal dealing with access to information, the onus to prove an entitlement to access to information is being reversed. An applicant must now prove that information should be released. As Mr Mark Robinson, from the Law Council of Australia, pointed out in the Senate committee, it makes it virtually impossible for any applicant to succeed in having a decision taken by an information commissioner reversed. He went on to say that applicants often do not know what document they are seeking or what it contains; they just believe it exists and that it will be useful. Yet if they do not know what the document is or exactly what it contains, how are they to prove that they should be given access to it?

More importantly, if you look at the issue of disclosure, the Rudd government in office have been even less willing than the Howard government to give access. My colleague Senator Brandis recently dealt with the 2008-09 report of the Rudd government dealing with exemptions in relation to freedom of information, and it disclosed an absolute rejection of 6.1 per cent of freedom of information applications. By comparison, in the last full year of the Howard government, only 4.4 applications were completely blocked. (Time expired)


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