Monday, 9 November 2015
Private Members' Business
Freedom of Information
That this House:
(1) expresses concern at the culture of secrecy prevalent in the Government and the serious undermining of the core principles enshrined in the freedom of information legislation;
(2) notes the Government has:
(a) defunded the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) despite failing to pass its legislation to abolish the office; and
(b) failed to advance Australia's application for the Open Government Partnership (OGP); and
(3) calls on the Government to abandon its attack on the OAIC and provide it with proper funding, and recommit to joining the OGP.
Since coming into federal parliament I have been totally stunned by the complete lack of regard for the principles of governance and transparency that underpin the Freedom of Information Act, as displayed by many ministers and government agencies. I had eight years as a minister, and I do understand that FOIs are a bit of a challenge and not something that ministers necessarily welcome. But I also understand, and have always understood, that this legislation has the important role of enhancing the prospects of open and accountable government. We know the Prime Minister himself has gone on record saying he supports this; saying that the current Australian government's Principles on open public sector information state that open access should be our default position; and saying that, 'unless there are good reasons to the contrary, government information should be free, easily discoverable, based on open standards and properly documented.'
Rather than looking at the position we have got ourselves into with the abolished Office of the Australian Information Commissioner—a decision that was made under the government of which the now Prime Minister was a senior member—where we had the absurd situation of the Freedom of Information Commissioner actually operating from his own home because the physical office had been abolished, I want to talk about a particular case that I think demonstrates how far this government will go to stop the truth being known.
We know that one of the biggest and most controversial issues is the $1.7 billion Perth Freight Link project. We know that Assistant Minister Jamie Briggs cooked up this ill-fated project, and that he did not come through official channels when it appeared like a UFO in the 2014 federal budget. It was very relevant for us to find out how this all happened, and so we sought documents relating to the freight link from the Assistant Minister in July this year. Initially they said: 'No, we are going to refuse that.' Twice we worked with them, and narrowed down the scope of the request so that it very clearly related to just those documents that would show us the advice that was coming from government agencies, and the discussion that went on between the Assistant Minister and the WA government. Finally they agreed to process our request, and identified 93 pages of documents.
On 18 September we thought, 'Nirvana. We have finally got a charges document.' We raced off and paid the first of the deposits, but six days later we found that in fact they would not be finalising the document. They said that since the portfolio of the assistant minister no longer exists and that the documents have not been transferred to the new minister, that they were not able to finalise our request. So we made a complaint to the Commonwealth Ombudsman. The Commonwealth Ombudsman wrote to the department and said, 'Where are these documents?' The department wrote back, very ambiguously, 'These documents are specific to the minister and to the staff.' Now the Commonwealth Ombudsman has interpreted that as meaning that the department does not know where these documents are.
So I put it to you that we are now in a situation where we know there are critical documents out there that have been assessed. They have been cleared for release, but we cannot get them because there is no agency that can accept responsibility. Somehow or other the assistant minister has taken these 93 pages of documents off with him somewhere into his new portfolio, but they are not accessible to the public. We need to do better than this. We need to ensure, at minimum, that respect for the principles of open and transparent government are adhered to, and we want the Prime Minister to direct the assistant minister to now find these documents and release them to the public of Western Australia. We need to know why we are spending $1.7 billion on this project and why it is they are so desperate to keep all information from the public on this project.