Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Questions without Notice
Freedom of Information
My question is to the Minister for Health and Ageing, Minister for Justice and Minister for Privacy and Freedom of Information. Minister, how is the government improving Australia’s freedom of information laws to improve the accessibility and usability of government information?
I thank the member for Page for her question and her advocacy for freedom of information. This is a very important reform. When Labor came to government in 2007, it undertook to overhaul Australia’s freedom of information laws. It did this to restore transparent government following a decade of secrecy and concealment. We abolished conclusive certificates and, in doing so, abolished the power of a minister to lock up information because it did not suit the government’s interests. Indeed Labor is continuing to restore openness and transparency and trust and integrity, with further reforms to our freedom of information laws to take effect from 1 November 2010. Next week marks the commencement of those laws and also marks the commencement of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. The former Commonwealth Ombudsman, Professor John McMillan AO, will take up the role and will work with public sector agencies to improve community access to government-held information. Professor McMillan and the new Freedom of Information Commissioner will be independent advocates for FOI and will encourage the spread of pro-disclosure information and a pro-disclosure culture right across the government, which is a very good thing.
We recognise that these are important reforms. We also recognise that there has been a deterrent to having access to such information as a result of the fees that currently stand. As a result of that, we are looking to change the fees and charges—that is, to remove fees and charges, especially for people who seek personal information. Previously a person seeking access to their own information could be liable for fees and charges of up to $100. From next week there will be no charge for a person seeking access to personal information. For all applicants for general information the government has abolished the $30 application fee for FOI requests and also will abolish the $40 fee—
Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I have a question of you, Mr Speaker. My question is in relation to the new standing orders in this new parliament. To my understanding, ministers are not permitted to read verbatim from their notes—
The member will resume his seat. There has been no alteration of standing orders in regard to that matter. This arises out of an agreement signed on behalf of, I think, 147 members. I will have to look to see whether it has been signed on the other two which were signed on behalf of 73 members. While I am on agreements—this will prove that I am not being churlish about agreements—as the member for Lyne’s father is in the gallery and it is his 80th birthday, it is appropriate that I say to Robert Oakeshott Sr, ‘Happy Birthday’. Maybe he can help me with the way in which we interpret not using notes in questions and answers. I hope that this is something which can be maturely visited. In other jurisdictions it has been phrased as the question and answer not being read, which has led to the expression ‘use of copious notes’. I find myself in an invidious position at a time of change in trying to come to grips with this aspect, but I will revisit it. But no change to standing orders was made.
As I said, we are abolishing fees—firstly, a $30 fee for FOI applications and also a $40 fee for applications to review FOI decisions. These are important reforms which will make it easier for people to access information. In addition, the government has decided to make the first five hours of decision making free, not only to journalists and non-government organisations but to the public at large—a significant reform as well. From 1 November there will be a single public interest test in dealing with exemptions, which will favour disclosure of a document unless the public interest lies in non-disclosure. From May next year, as a key part of the pro-disclosure reforms there will be a requirement for public sector agencies to publish any information disclosed in response to an FOI request within 10 days of that disclosure. That will provide information to everybody, not just to the applicant who sought that information.
During the Howard years the coalition practised secrecy and concealment. This government believes in openness and transparency and for that reason these reforms are very important and we are very happy to introduce them. (Time expired)