Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Information Commissioner Bill 2009; Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2009
Debate resumed from 11 May, on motion by Mr Byrne:
That this bill be now read a second time.
If the Australian electorate is to be able to make valid judgements on government policy it should have the greatest access to information possible. How can any community progress without continuing and informed and intelligent debate? How can there be any debate without information?
Malcolm Fraser’s comment is not only incontrovertible but, surely, uncontroversial. In fact, it is extremely logical, but, as John Hartigan, the chairman and CEO of News Ltd, who quoted that very passage at a freedom of speech conference, pointed out:
30 years later, we are still waiting for the fulfilment of those ideals.
Freedom of information was designed to ensure that the community could have continuing, informed and intelligent debate. It gave people the right to know—to seek documents held by government ministers, their departments and most statutory authorities, as well as personal information the government holds on individuals. Government was to be open and accountable, available for all to see and scrutinise, but with some understandable specific exceptions, such as matters relating to security.
It has taken time for governments and the Public Service to adopt such an open, accountable attitude and to accept that information in the public sphere is not the enemy, that the information departments hold is not solely for their eyes and that the public should be able to ask for information without the spectre of interrogation and mistrust.
It was interesting to read an article in the Australian by Senator George Brandis, the shadow Attorney-General. Commenting on the development of this legislation, he said:
Access to government information was as much about the attitude of the public servants who administered the act. So Faulkner committed the Rudd government to the creation of ‘a pro-disclosure culture within government and the public service around the release of, and access to, government information [to] change the culture of FOI from one of resistance to one of disclosure’.
So, although black-letter law such as we are passing in this place today plays an important part in ensuring that the freedom of information policy can operate the way it was intended, also important is making sure there is a change of mindset and that ministers and everyone working in ministers’ offices and government departments understand that the public have a right to know and that intelligent debate cannot ensue if people do not have access to information, as Malcolm Fraser said in 1976.
But attitudes are changing, and the Public Service, led by ministers, has been increasing transparency. The ideals of freedom of information have been getting traction. Then Senator Faulkner, when Special Minister of State, proclaimed a new dawn for even greater transparency, pointing to these bills in front of us as just the start. My concern is that this dawn will never break. Some changes have been made in this legislation—that is true—to reduce the cost of freedom of information requests, but will the obstacles to obtaining relevant material remain firmly in place? That is the question that we all need to ask and the issue we all need to examine.
The freedom of information bill abolishes all charges for a person seeking access to their own information. Previously there was a $30 application fee plus decision-making time fees. All charges are now abolished where a person is seeking information about themselves. All other freedom of information application fees—that is, where applicants seek access to government documents—are also abolished. This has been quite a significant problem for many people seeking information, as I will outline in more detail shortly. The decision-making time fee, which is set out in schedule 5 of the regulations to the act, currently $20 an hour, is waived for the first hour of all requests. For journalists and not-for-profit organisations, the first five decision-making hours are charge free. The distinction recognises that journalists and NGOs in the pursuit of information to inform public debate or criticise the government may place wide-ranging or technical requests that require greater examination by the relevant department. To further enhance this bill, the five-hour charge-free provision should be extended to universities, historians, researchers, writers and, dare I say it, politicians. People undertaking these professions also add to the public debate and inform society. Perhaps they too should be allowed the same concessions.
Access time periods under the Archives Act are reduced by this bill as well. Commonwealth records can be accessed after 20 years, down from 30 years, and cabinet notebooks after 30 years, down from 50 years. Under division 2, certain information must also be published by an agency—that is, the structure of the agency, its functions and decision-making powers, senior officers, annual reports that are made available to parliament, information routinely provided to parliament, and how and when specific policy proposals can be commented on by members of the public. Overseeing the architecture and application of the Freedom of Information Act will be a new Information Commissioner.
The mentioned measures are logical additions and certainly have my support and, I expect, the support of most people in this place. But the pertinent question is whether the government is really committed to transparency; or is this mere decoration to hide the ugly truth? The government is required by the Freedom of Information Act to release an annual report. It did so nearly two months after the minister signed off on the report. It is disappointing that the report was released right at Christmas, when everyone was on holiday and somewhat distracted with Christmas festivities. You have to ask why. A cynic might say that it showed that under this government there has been less freedom of information. During the previous, coalition government, in the financial year 2006-07, 80.6 per cent of freedom of information requests were granted in full, but under this government, in the financial year 2008-09, that plummeted to 71 per cent. So people can be excused for feeling somewhat cynical about this.
Page 6 of the report reveals more curious statistics. The Australian Federal Police refused in full only 16.6 per cent of all freedom of information applications received, but the Civil Aviation Safety Authority refused 34.69 per cent. I am perplexed as to how the agency charged, in the interests of public safety, with regulations for aircraft and air traffic management requires more secrecy than an agency which undertakes surveillance, covert operations and counterterrorism activities.
Let me give the House a real-world example about freedom of information. Constituents in my electorate have complained to me about a dramatic change in aircraft noise. As a matter of fact, it is the subject of a national Senate inquiry at the moment. Flight paths were changed without open, public consultation and the ramifications for people in the electorate of Pearce were real: it devalued their properties, it destroyed the quality of life in an area that is quiet and peaceful up in the hills outside Perth and it has left many people sleep deprived, so naturally people are very angry about it.
In investigating why such a change happened without any open public consultation, I put a number of questions to Air Services Australia—the federal government owned corporation providing air traffic control management services to Australia’s aviation industry. They told me that the basis for the changes rested on a CASA report which made safety recommendations, and that was the impetus for the change. I met with Air Services Australia again and asked to view a copy of the report, but they refused. I wrote to the minister and asked for the report and I was refused that report. My only option then was to apply under freedom of information to CASA directly, after also approaching CASA for the report, and I therefore wrote a cheque and paid the fee for the information.
Some initial research on CASA’s and Air Services Australia’s websites revealed a discrepancy over which was the actual report that led to the changes, so in my FOI request I requested the report that led to the sudden changes to flight paths in 2008 and noted the report in question would make reference to CASA regulation part 172, which deals with safety management and air traffic services. The report that I received after paying the fee consisted of 10 pages, but when I received it, the vast majority was marked ‘deleted’. Only four sections with references to regulation part 172 were left, amounting to about 1½ pages.
Peter Cromarty, the Executive Manager of Airspace And Aerodrome Regulation, informed me in his covering letter that he decided to release the report with material ‘outside the scope’ deleted. I am quite puzzled as to how parts of the report could be ‘outside the scope’ when I requested the report itself. My reference to part 172 was used as justification to narrow the information provided to only the four sections specifically mentioning part 172 and deny access to the rest of the document as being outside my request. The report goes to the heart of the issue—that is, whether the change really was for safety reasons or not. As most of it was blacked out, seemingly ‘outside the scope’, the public would have every right to question the role of that document as the reason for changes to flight paths in Western Australia.
My experience highlights the overly legalistic approach so often applied to FOI requests. Requests can be read down to the black letter, minimising their apparent scope, thereby allowing the peripheral and often more enlightening supporting information to be excluded. That was certainly the case here. No wonder people feel cynical about the operation of freedom of information. The fact that this culture of secrecy exists is worrying in a democratic country. But the fact that this secrecy culture is growing when the Rudd government says it is increasing transparency is, frankly, alarming.
If members of this House are still not convinced of the problems faced by people seeking information, I would direct them to an informative article entitled ‘The minister is protected, but from what?’ by Mike Steketee in the Australian, published on 21 November 2009. In the article, Steketee details how Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute lodged a freedom of information request. He asked for the internal assessment of the limitations of the proposed emissions trading scheme from the department of climate change. After receiving nothing substantial, and having his application for an internal review rejected, he placed an FOI request regarding his initial FOI request.
The material uncovered is enlightening. For instance, Steketee reports that Neil Hughes, the director of the emissions trading division, rang Richard Denniss to confirm whether his request included material involving the minister. The answer was yes. But, later, Hughes circulated an email saying:
The secretary and deputy secretary have agreed the request does not refer to the minister, therefore ministerial briefing is now excluded from the request.
At another point, Steketee reports that Neil Hughes, a director of the emissions trading division, queried in a meeting, ‘how we can increase the charges, extend the deadline’. Such examples are not isolated. After the government’s failed National Broadband Network tender, Senator Nick Minchin lodged an FOI requesting documents. Previously the government had refused to release any documents, despite two Senate orders to do so. Senator Minchin then received a $23,851 bill to have the request processed. You did not hear me wrong, Mr Deputy Speaker Sidebottom: Senator Minchin—a senator in this place, in this Senate, in this parliament—received a $23,851 bill in order for his request under FOI to be processed. Freedom of information is certainly not free.
Open, accountable governance is one of the principles which underpin the very foundation of democracy. Without openness and accountability, our democratic system of governance is seriously compromised. Time and time again, from this parliament we have observed parliaments around the world who do not have open and accountable government and the havoc that wreaks on their citizens, in so many ways. As I always say when I am talking to students, democracy is a fragile flower and, if people stop taking notice of what is going on around them and cannot get access to information about what government is doing, it risks unpicking all of the principles that are the foundation of a democratically governed country.
The federal government talks about promoting a culture of transparency, and so far it has been just that—talk. Frankly, the Rudd government’s record, exposed through the records they must disclose under FOI, has shown transparency diminishing. Even where requests are allowed, the process is frustrating. If we in this place feel that frustration in the discharge of our duty to the public, how much more frustrated must members of the public feel? I think that is something for us all to reflect on: if we cannot get this information in the discharge of our duty, how much more frustrating is it for the average citizen out there trying to find out information, sometimes about their own record—sometimes to correct the record about their personal life? How frustrating it must be for members of the public, and how cynical it must make them.
Andrew Dodd’s Radio National program The Law Report on 20 October last year highlighted what I think would be common sense. On the program it was said:
I find it amusing that the department that has the responsibility for the national economy, cannot take credit card payment for an FOI request. In Queensland though, that’s changed with the new Act. You can lodge FOI right to know applications via the internet and pay over the internet. And that’s made life so much easier. It’s passing strange that government agencies are still being dragged reluctantly into the internet era, I find it interesting that they, for some reason, seem to do a lot of work with the internet and seem to have no problems, but when it comes to making life easier for FOI applicants, it doesn’t seem to have trickled down.
It has not trickled down to this place, to the federal government. The ability of a country’s citizens to seek and receive information is at the core of democracy, as I said. Open government guards against corruption. Information keeps governments accountable. But merely saying this does not make it happen. As I said before, we can pass all the legislation we want in this place, but if there is not a change of heart and mind then there are ways of escaping the responsibilities laid down in these acts of parliament, in the black-letter law.
There is a very obvious and widening gap between this government’s rhetoric and its performance. That is seen in a number of areas, and it is certainly being seen in relation to changes to the freedom of information legislation to make it more open and transparent. More and more, the government is withholding information. So I challenge all ministers: lead by example and encourage openness in your departments. There is no true democracy where there is no true open debate. And, as Malcolm Fraser so rightly says, ‘How can there be debate without information?’
I rise to support the Information Commissioner Bill 2009 and the Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2009, which together bring in the second stage of the government’s reform measures in this area and continue this government’s achievements in greater transparency and integrity in the structures and operation of our Australian democracy. In short, the measures contained in this legislation will make official government records available sooner, they will remove the cost burdens that previously existed in lodging freedom of information requests, they will make the FOI consideration process clearer and also subject to better oversight by the newly established Australian Office of the Information Commissioner, and they will extend the scope of the FOI Act.
The changes being made in these bills may not generate major headlines, but they will institute reforms that substantially improve the openness of government and its agencies and substantially improve the range and detail of information available to the public. In practical terms, these changes will include: a freedom of information request process that is simpler, more responsive, cheaper and less restrictive, with a single formulation of the public interest test and fewer exemptions from that test; an improved day-in, day-out operational approach to freedom of information by government agencies, with a requirement that such agencies provide certain information as a matter of course and in accordance with a publicly available, agency-by-agency freedom of information plan; and a greatly improved system of FOI supervision and oversight through the creation of the Office of the Information Commissioner, which will itself include three important information officers, namely, the Australian Information Commissioner, the FOI Commissioner, and the Privacy Commissioner;
The creation of an FOI Commissioner was one of the recommendations of the Open government report, which was the result of the review undertaken by the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Administrative Review Council in 1996. Indeed, a number of the recommendations in that report are now, finally, introduced through this legislation, after the previous government failed to take action on them for 11 years, only to then initiate a second, narrower review of FOI laws in 2007. Those who suggest that this government is all review and no action might reflect on the Howard government’s record on FOI reform. Just like the national bioregional marine planning process, which was agreed to by the Commonwealth and the states in 1998 but then lay dormant for nine years, these important, long-recommended FOI reforms have had to wait for this government to come in to see the light of day.
With these changes, the inner working of government and of the public service, including those contracted and even subcontracted to provide services on behalf of the Commonwealth, will be made available more quickly, more easily and with greater process oversight to Australian citizens and to organisations, including media organisations, whose free and unfettered access to such key information is an essential part of the scrutiny that government should always be open to and an essential part of a well-informed and engaged electorate.
The votes of Australian citizens and their aggregate influence within our electoral system are cast on the basis of the information that is available to inform those votes. The quality of the information in the public sphere directly impacts upon the quality of the electoral outcome. For instance, Australian citizens should never have had to go to the polls in the mistaken belief that asylum seekers threw their children overboard. Every step we take to ensure that government and government agencies are open to the proper scrutiny of the public and of the media is both a step towards a higher quality Australian democracy and a step away from the dangers that are inherent in politically expedient secrecy.
The changes to the FOI Act not only improve the right of access to information sought by the public, which is perhaps the most commonly understood purpose of FOI laws, but also put in place new obligations on Australian government agencies to ensure that they proactively publish relevant information. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner will be responsible for the compliance of government agencies in this regard, and agencies will be required to publish approved plans that indicate what information is to be made available to the public. Agencies will further be required to publish the details of an officer who will be the point of contact for public inquiries about information that can be released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Exemptions that exist under the act to allow certain kinds of information to be withheld will be streamlined, with a revised single formulation of the public interest test and a requirement that any refusal upon the application of that test include release of the public interest factors assessed in reaching the decision to refuse access. Previously this requirement applied only to the internal working documents exemption. Some important exemptions, such as the national economy exemption, will now be conditional exemptions. That is, they will be subject to the public interest test, when previously they were strict exemptions. This is another example of a shift towards openness, of an emphasis on disclosure rather than on secrecy. Such a shift is also evident in the new approach to the cabinet exemption. As it stood, the FOI exemption covered all documents submitted to cabinet or that are proposed to be submitted. The amended exemption is limited to those documents prepared for the dominant purpose of submission to cabinet. It will now not apply as a matter of course to documents that were attached to an exempt document and the scope of the cabinet exemption has been clarified by the provision of specific details as to what the exemption covers.
The reforms in this legislation build on what was achieved through the Freedom of Information (Removal of Conclusive Certificates and Other Measures) Act 2009, which commenced operation in October last year and had the effect of repealing the power to issue conclusive certificates. That means that all FOI refusals on the grounds of the exemptions that exist in the FOI Act and the Archives Act are subject to full independent external merits review. This legislation continues the stream of reforms introduced by this government with a view to strengthening Australian democracy and increasing the fairness and openness of our electoral and political system. This is one of the clearest points of difference between this Labor government and its predecessor. It bears repeating that the previous government massively increased the threshold for political donations that did not need to be disclosed, massively increased the taxpayer funded printing and communications allowance, used conclusive certificates as a means of avoiding freedom of information scrutiny and amended the Electoral Act to close off the rolls in a way that disenfranchised thousands of Australian voters.
By contrast, this government has delivered on its promise to address the issue of political donations and the undemocratic changes made by the Howard government to the donations and enrolment provisions of the Electoral Act, though unfortunately our efforts in this regard have at times been scandalously obstructed. We have delivered on our promise to establish a register of lobbyists and a ministerial code of conduct and to reduce the public funding of printing and distribution by members and senators and to abolish the use of conclusive certificates. Through the amendments contained in the legislation before us today, this government is reforming the system of access to information about government and its agencies in the interest of greater access, greater transparency and greater oversight. This legislation delivers categorically on the commitments made prior to the 2007 election in the Labor policy document titled Government information: restoring trust and integrity in government information.
Taken altogether, these things I have mentioned are structural improvements to the way in which our democracy works. They are done because this Labor government has a principled commitment to seeing these improvements made real. We have undertaken these achievements as a first-term government on a relatively small margin. We have implemented these reforms even though they are changes that in some cases increase the scrutiny and pressure that government can be subjected to and in other cases reduce the value of incumbency. They are certainly not changes for which the government has received or sought any great credit in the media or, I dare say, in the course of dinner table conversations in households around the country. But, like changes that increase the quality of the air we breathe, these are reforms that deal with the essential substance of Australian democracy, and they will deliver benefits that go right across the breadth and depth of government and public administration.
Finally, I congratulate the Cabinet Secretary and Special Minister of State for these bills and the important reforms they contain. I welcome this further instalment of the Rudd Labor government’s program of strengthening Australia’s democracy.
I rise to also put on the record some views on the Information Commissioner Bill 2009 and the Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2009. With many pieces of legislation that go through this place—and this is one such example—the theory and the words that we see in the paperwork are commendable and very hard to argue against in any form. However, it is a case of flagging, for anyone who is listening, that the proof in pieces of legislation such as this one is very much in the implementation and the commitment from those who late at night might be sitting behind a ministerial desk or an adviser’s desk with a potentially politically embarrassing freedom of information request before them. The question then is what decision is made by the individuals involved in the implementation of reform documents such as this one.
So by all means the changes to the object of the FOI Act are welcome but the test is yet to come with legislation passing this place. The test will come when the human discretion becomes involved at a later date, whether that is through an Information Commissioner, and the questions of who that person is; what their qualifications are; what authority—delegated or otherwise—they have; what reporting commitments they have to the parliament and to various ministers, prime ministers and parliamentarians; what genuine commitment to public disclosure that individual has; as well as the overall culture of government generally and departments specifically. The culture, mainly, in Canberra is not at this moment in time one of open disclosure and open government. I sincerely hope that this is a step in the development and the change of that culture to one as per the words, where open government is the starting point and we work back from there rather than open government being the last port of call in freedom of information requests and an open, transparent and therefore accountable democracy. So the general tone of these amendments—that information held by government is to be managed for public purposes and is a national resource—are expressed in fine words and fine sentiments, but I do flag that I certainly will be watching closely.
In this speech I will be raising a specific example where, if government are serious and genuine in their intent about reform, they will consider starting to put these words into practice immediately. The case in question I want to raise is in relation to the schedule 3 exemptions. Listing through the changes to the publication guidelines for Commonwealth agencies subject to this act, the new types of information that are included in the reforms are details of statutory appointments, operational information of an agency, and the publication of information in documents to which access is routinely given through FOI requests. This final requirement is qualified concerning the publication of information that concerns personal information about any individual, information about the business or professional affairs of any persons, or any other kind of information of a kind determined by the Information Commissioner through a legislative instrument that is deemed unreasonable to be published. This part provides for the new Information Commissioner to assist the agencies with their publishing obligations and to play the big brother type role. In reference to my previous comments, therein lies the question: just how hard and how often is this Information Commissioner going to press the button of open government rather than being subservient to the whim, the wishes or the potential embarrassment of individuals or departments?
Perhaps most importantly, the proposed 9A outlines that an agency, in performing its functions under this part of the act, must have regard to the revised section 3 object of the FOI Act and then the schedule 3 exemptions and the part 1 open-access periods. Open-access periods are when the National Archives of Australia must make available Commonwealth records other than exempt records to the public. Currently records other than cabinet notebooks are not available for 30 years and cabinet books are not available for 50 years. This part of the bill changes the Archives Act 1983 and brings forward these periods so that Commonwealth records are available sooner. Records other than cabinet notebooks will now be available for open access after 20 years, and cabinet books will be available within 30 years. That is, I think, an important step, but it does lead me to raise the specific issue before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal right now, which does directly sit at odds with the intent from government in this legislation and the language from government in this legislation.
The new single-form public interest test which is weighted towards disclosure and the 30-year rule sitting alongside the Archives Act is directly at odds with the Clinton Fernandes case and the paperwork that he is seeking through the 41 situation reports in relation to the East Timor independence events of 35 years ago. Even now the question of public interest is having to be tested by an individual who potentially is exposing himself to hundreds of thousands of dollars of court costs. But he is an individual doing it for the national interest, ironically with the Australian Government Solicitor acting for the National Archives of Australia seeking to block access to the contents of some of these 40 situation reports from that period, most on the grounds that they contain information the disclosure of which ‘could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the security, defence or international relations of the Commonwealth’. A couple of them are also deemed sensitive because they contain information sent as secret by other foreign governments. So not only is the Australian government now seeking to block disclosure to avoid ‘exceptionally grave harm to national security’; the government is also seeking to have the tribunal hearing held in camera on the grounds that even arguing why the documents are so sensitive would disclose some of the contents. This, remember, is about things that happened in 1975—35 years ago.
So Clinton Fernandes, who was a guest of mine when we had the Indonesian President here, is not a mad, raving loony; he is a defence analyst connected to the University of New South Wales. He was responsible for the East Timor desk, in a period when the independence movement in East Timor was on. He has, he assures me, seen most if not all of these 42 situation reports. And he assures me and others that these situation reports are not against the national interest. They may cause some political embarrassment, but if we are talking about a public interest test, if we are talking about open disclosure, if we are talking about political embarrassment not being a reason for withholding documents, then here is a real, live test case before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal that the Minister for Defence, John Faulkner, could override and release those documents and save a court process, the exposure of an individual and also genuinely demonstrate a commitment to public and open disclosure in the national interest. Somewhat ironically, it is the same John Faulkner who, to his credit, is the person who is largely responsible, with a lifelong commitment and a political commitment to freedom of information and public disclosure, for the formation and introduction of this bill—and I congratulate him for that. But the challenge now, directly to him, is that here is a real, live opportunity for him, today, to move in his capacity as Minister for Defence, on the release of these documents from 35 years ago, under the Archives Act—exactly in line, I would suggest, with the proposed legislation before the House today. Yet, in a court down the road, we have government acting completely at odds with the sentiments and the words that are contained within this document.
Going back to my opening comments, these are good words. This is a good piece of legislation. It is necessary reform. But when the human discretion and the human interest test becomes involved in public policy, we start to put the rubber on the road, the meat on the bone—and any other cliche that says the real test of whether governments and individuals within government are serious about these good words. We start to see whether these words mean anything. Unfortunately, at the moment, in a court down the road, they are not worth the paper they are written on. It would be great to see that turned around as a first and genuine example of a new era of open government from the Labor government, which talks about the importance of open government to democracy yet is doing the exact opposite in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal right now.
So there is my challenge for today, to the minister, to the government and to the advisors sitting in the boxes: let us see it. Let us maybe have some truth about what happened around 1975 debated in the open forum and the public court. Yes, it may cause some political discomfort for former prime ministers Whitlam and Fraser, but let’s bring it on—let’s get the story told and have an open and honest debate about events from 35 years ago; let’s start to learn the truth about those events; and let’s then start to drill down on how we build stronger relations between Indonesia, Australia and East Timor as a consequence of those events from 35 years ago. So I welcome the words. I welcome the legislation. I look forward to the action to back up those words and this legislation before the House today.
in reply—In summing up this particular piece of legislation I would like to welcome the contribution of all members to the debate. I would like to respond, however, to some of the comments made by the member for Stirling earlier in this debate. Senator Ludwig has acknowledged that the latest FOI annual report shows that the FOI Act is in need of reform. This is what makes the reforms in these bills so important. However, had the member for Stirling read the latest annual report, he would have found that the numbers do not always speak for themselves, and that some of the figures he quoted are not, as he said, evidence that there is less freedom of information under the Rudd government than there was under the Howard government.
The latest FOI annual report for 2008-09 does show that FOI access requests are slightly down on the previous year. This decrease can be explained by a decrease in the number of requests submitted to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, as DIAC is providing access to international movement records outside of the FOI Act. This is a change that should be welcomed. Departments are not requiring applicants to go through FOI but are giving them access through easier and less formal means. Refusal rates, we are told, were also slightly up. However, FOI requests for non-personal information have increased from 15 per cent in 2007-08 to 20 per cent in 2008-09, indicating that the FOI Act is being increasingly used to seek access to other documents, such as those concerning policy development and government decision making. Some of these documents just should not be released, as they relate to highly sensitive information such as matters of security or defence. This is one reason for the slight increase in refusal rates. I do not, however, think that the member for Stirling would ever suggest that such information should be given out, particularly in the national interest.
But let us turn to the reason we are here today: because the Rudd government is ushering in a new regime for access to government information. After over a decade of secrecy in the Howard government—which John Hartigan labelled the most secretive government we have ever had, even in war time—these reforms are critical and necessary. These reforms are a key aspect of the Rudd government’s policy to restore trust and integrity in government, and constitute the most significant overhaul of FOI since its enactment. The FOI Act is a cornerstone law in Australian government accountability legislation. These reforms will revitalise the FOI Act so that it provides a stronger foundation for more openness in government. Indeed, the proposed new objects clause for the FOI Act recognises that giving the Australian community access to government held information will promote Australia’s representative democracy.
Several witnesses in the public hearings conducted by the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee expressed support for the reforms in the bill and urged their prompt enactment by this parliament. I should acknowledge, however, that there are some witnesses who would also prefer to see other measures such as the removal of more exemptions and exclusions. The government believes that these bills represent the right balance between meeting the public interest in disclosure of government information and in establishing those interests where a strong public interest lies in maintaining confidentiality of government held information. Together with the structural reforms proposed by the Information Commissioner Bill 2009 these bills aim to ensure that the right of access to documents is not unduly restricted by a liberal application of exemption criteria.
Provision is made in the bill for a review to be undertaken of the FOI Act two years from the commencement of the bill. The review will be comprehensive and include an examination of agencies exempted from the operation of the act.
I will, in summing up on this bill, mention two very significant changes to the FOI Act that will be effected by the FOI Amendment (Reform) Bill. The proposed new agency information publication scheme marks a significant change in the focus of the FOI Act. Instead of a framework that is largely reactive to access requests, the information publication scheme establishes a legislative framework for agency driven proactive publication of government information. This scheme goes further than establishing fixed classes of information for publication. Agencies will need to actively consider the information they hold, which can and should be made available to the public.
In another very significant change the period that the FOI Act governs access to government information will be reduced while accelerating the application of the Archives Act. The bill amends the Archives Act to bring forward the open access periods for all records other than cabinet notebooks and census information from 30 years to 20 years. The open access period for cabinet notebooks is to be brought forward from 50 years to 30 years. These are some of the more significant changes. This bill, together with the Information Commissioner Bill 2009, comprises a strong package of measures to enhance public access to government held information.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.