House debates

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Bills

Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill 2014; Second Reading

5:28 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

When questioned on why the government had failed to produce the report, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women said:

There will not be a Women's Budget Statement this year. The Government prepared a small number of budget statements and highlights which focused on key areas of reform which are pivotal to all Australian's, regardless of gender.

But the facts of the budget were very clear. There were so many measures that impacted negatively on women that this government should, at the very least, have produced a dedicated statement outlining the implications for what this would mean. The production of the statement by previous Labor governments was not a PR exercise, as has been claimed by members of the government; it was an important measure of openness, transparency and equity. Indeed, it goes to the point of order just raised by the member opposite, who asked about the relevance. The point being that this is a government that lacks openness and transparency when dealing with the Australian public. That was one example.

Even the Howard government saw the merits of producing the Women's Budget Statement. The reason for hiding the impact that this year's budget had on women was likely because of the harm it was due to cause. As Marie Coleman, Chair of the National Foundation for Australian Women's Social Policy Committee, made clear:

This is a Budget that will hurt practically every woman—whether a single parent, unemployed, in the workforce, studying or a homemaker. Very few will remain unscathed.

When releasing their own financial analysis of how budget measures will affect women, Ms Coleman said that not releasing a statement reduced transparency in federal government reporting and accountability.

We have seen the government try and hide from their own budget papers and the facts that contradict their statements time after time in this House. What next? No budget papers available to the public at all?

Freedom of information and transparency of government is essential to ensure the health of Australia's democracy. It gives the Australian public and media access to information about what the government they elected is doing in their name. It is a very important tool in providing an open and transparent government. At a time when we are looking to extend security powers, it is vital that we find a balance in law that ensures and maintains strong and effective accountability of government. Public trust and confidence in our security and intelligence agencies can only be assured through strong and rigorous oversight and scrutiny.

Since FOI laws were first introduced in Australia in the 1970s, Labor has worked to strengthen these laws to improve honesty and transparency in government, and to champion the publics' right to know. In 2010 the federal Labor government established the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner to provide independent oversight of the FOI regime and to champion freedom of information right across government. Unsurprisingly, the Abbott government is now seeking to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. This government has been seeking to hide what it is doing from the Australian public and to avoid its obligations under the existing FOI Act since it came to office.

A classic example of this is being undertaken by the minister responsible for FOI law himself. The Attorney-General claims that processing a simple request to release his diary for his first six months in government would unreasonably interfere with the work of his office and has refused an FOI request to do so. This is despite world leaders, who I would suggest have far more on their plate than our Attorney-General—like the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard I might add—all publicly publishing their schedules as a matter of course. The minister responsible for FOI laws should be setting the standard for openness and accountability, not denying reasonable applications and hiding behind poor excuses.

The changes to FOI before us today were first announced on budget night. There was no prior consultation and there has been none since. In advocating for these laws in a media release dated 13 May 2014, it was Senator Brandis who argued:

Simplifying and streamlining FOI … processes by transferring these functions from the OAIC to the AAT will improve administrative efficiencies and reduce the burden on FOI applicants.

In fact, the government is purporting to be improving efficiency and reducing the burden on FOI applicants by actually pricing out most of the would-be applicants.

Peter Timmins, a lawyer and blogger on FOI issues defends the OAIC notwithstanding the backlogs and time delays experienced by applicants, which he says have been due to under-resourcing, noting that that office at least gave people the right to make an application for review without fees. He makes the point that the change to the AAT review will in fact place FOI review back into the realm of very expensive legal representation.

Professor Richard Mulgan of the Australian National University described the Attorney-General's statement as 'deceitful sophistry', as was mentioned by the shadow Attorney-General. The recently released OAIC annual report revealed that the office is in fact improving efficiencies significantly without meddling from the Attorney-General or pricing average citizens out of challenging decisions.

In 2013-2014, the Information Commissioner indicated that many problems of backlog had been resolved and the office had improved response times despite a significantly increased workload. In his media statement releasing the annual report, the Australian Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan AO, said:

The OAIC made excellent progress in resolving freedom of information (FOI) matters, completing 646 Information Commissioner reviews, an increase of 54% from last year. Another success was to reduce the time taken to commence work on new review applications, down from 206 to 40 days.

The OAIC also processed 2,456 extension of time requests and notifications and responded to 1,903 phone and written enquiries about FOI. This dramatic improvement is evidence that in just the first two years of operation the OAIC is making real progress in providing information to the Australian people and helping to ensure open and transparent government.

The simple truth is that this bill would abolish the opportunity that members of the public currently have to request the independent Information Commissioner to review a refusal by the government to provide documents under FOI. This right is currently exercisable at no cost to the applicant; but, by abolishing the independent Information Commissioner, the Abbott government will force anyone wanting an independent review of a government decision to refuse to provide documents under FOI to go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, where we know the filing fee is over $800. It is a fee that would put lodging an appeal beyond the reach of most citizens. A right to access information should not be determined by the size of your wallet.

Only the Abbott government could argue this new regime of heavy fees to replace an independent oversight which is currently free would allegedly 'reduce the burden on FOI applicants'. This bill is clearly part of the Abbott government's plan to avoid scrutiny by the public that elected it. This bill is about weakening freedom of information in Australia by a government desperate to hide what it is doing.

The Information Commissioner, Professor McMillan, has said:

The OAIC's vision has been an Australia where privacy and information access rights are respected and public sector information is managed in the public interest.

This is a vision that is absolutely worthy of defence. Scrutiny of government is necessary—indeed essential—for a healthy democracy. It should happen independent of government and at arm's length, not in the office of the chief lawmaker. The small savings outlined in executing the measures contained in this bill cannot in any way justify the gutting of an entire FOI system—a new system that has just started hitting its stride in making sure that government is operating in an honest, open and transparent manner. The Australian people deserve no less from their elected representatives.

This bill is a massive overreach on the government's part, and I join with my Labor colleagues in opposing this bill and standing up for an open and transparent government instead.

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