Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill 2014; Second Reading
I thank all honourable members for their contribution to this debate. The Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill 2014 will streamline arrangements for the exercise of privacy and freedom of information functions from 1 January 2015. I would like to address some of the matters that have been raised by members who have spoken in this debate. It was put by a number of members, including the member for Newcastle, the member for Moreton and the member for Melbourne, that the freedom of information regime is a very important tool to facilitate the open and transparent operations of government. The Abbott government certainly strongly agrees with that proposition. The Abbott government is strongly committed to transparent, accountable and open government.
I want to emphasise that this bill does not affect the legally enforceable right of every person under the Freedom of Information Act to request access to documents of an agency or official documents of a minister, nor does it make any changes to the objects of the Freedom of Information Act or the matters that agencies and ministers are required to consider in making decisions regarding freedom of information requests. The bill simply removes an unnecessary and anomalous layer of external merits review for freedom of information decisions.
It was put by the member for Isaacs and some other speakers that the Abbott government is seeking to abolish the information commissioner because of a desire to hide information from the public. I reiterate: that is a fundamental misconception of the rationale for this bill. The freedom of information arrangements, as I have just described—that is, the fundamental right of citizens, a legally enforceable right to request access to documents of an agency or official documents of a minister—are not going to change in any way.
There was some questions raised about the rationale for the amendments to the freedom of information arrangements and in particular the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner arrangements that are contained in this bill. Can I remind the House of what the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, said on budget night, that this bill will 'streamline and simplify Australia's external merits review system'. The problem that this bill addresses is that the establishment by the previous government of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner created an unnecessarily complex, multileveled system.
What we have seen in, notwithstanding the glowing assessments provided by those on the other side of the House, is that in practice what the current system has resulted in—the system that has been in place since the previous government introduced these arrangements—is a duplication of complaint handling, and there have been very significant processing delays. These issues have existed since the 2010 changes were made and are inherent in the design of the system. That is the very reason why this bill proposes to correct that fundamental design error that was made by the previous government.
The member for Isaacs and the member for Newcastle raised some concerns about the cost of going to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to seek a review of freedom of information decisions. Let me just make some relevant points here. While it is true that the application fee to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal is $861, there is a reduced fee of $100 in the case of hardship. In certain specified cases there is no fee payable at all, and those include FOI reviews about Commonwealth workers compensation, family assistance, social security payments and veterans' entitlements. I also remind the House that consistent with other matters in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, successful FOI applicants will receive a refund of $761 of the full $861 fee.
What the government is doing in this bill is to remove a layer of external merits review to bring the process into line with review arrangements for other government decisions. I reiterate: there will continue to be a merits review, but it will be a review by the AAT—a single merits review as opposed to the anomalous arrangement which has been in place since 2010 of having two layers of review.
The last point I would like to address is one raised by the member for Isaacs, who questioned why there was no reference to the Hawke review of freedom of information arrangements in the second reading speech. I want to emphasise that the government is not ignoring the review conducted by Dr Allan Hawke, who, as the member for Isaacs rightly said, is an extremely eminent former government official. The government is carefully considering the 40 recommendations in Dr Hawke's report and will determine its response in due course. It is simply not appropriate at this time to express any interim views in relation to that matter. So I do want to foreshadow that I will be moving a minor amendment to item 3 of schedule 2 to the bill to clarify the arrangements between the Australian privacy commissioner and the Australian Human Rights Commission.
I also want to acknowledge the valuable contributions of the Australian Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan AO, the Freedom of Information Commissioner, Dr James Popple, and all of the staff of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. These new arrangements are in no way a reflection on their performance; they are a reflection on the system and the inherent design of the system in which they presently operate—an inherent design which needs correction. That is the purpose of this bill.
I conclude by reiterating the point that these arrangements will reduce the size of government, streamline the delivery of government services and reduce duplication. It will mean business as usual for privacy and it will largely restore the system for the management of freedom of information that was in place for many years before the establishment of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.