Thursday, 26 November 2015
Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015; Second Reading
I do support this bill for a number of reasons. I note that Senator Seselja has given an articulate exposition of the reasons why the government does not support this bill, and I respect that. It is a good thing that Senator Ludwig has introduced this bill because, at the very least, it puts FOI on the agenda. It may not be a very sexy topic, FOI, but it is absolutely crucial in the transparency and the good working of government. It is important that this topic is debated in this way, with good ideas coming forward. FOI is one of the few avenues that Australian citizens can access the information and documents held by government agencies. I believe Senator Ludwig's bill improves the quality and access to FOI decisions and makes that FOI framework more transparent and accessible.
The bill requires government agencies and ministers to publish the exact wording of FOI requests and a statement of reasons concerning the decisions to allow, refuse or edit the release of requested documents. In this way, it would set up a paper trail, an electronic trail of what FOI requests have been made and what happened to them. It improves the ability of FOI to ensure that information from government agencies is 'readily available to persons affected by those government agencies'. The bill will make it easier for applicants to build on the decisions of previous FOI applications and avoid unnecessary duplication of requests. So when the government says this is going to be unwieldy and it is going to cost more, in fact it will not. It will mean, by having this electronic trail of requests, fewer unnecessary FOI requests. People will be able to see what has been requested and what the response has been rather than putting in another application. This will reduce red tape—and I know that the government loves reducing red tape. I think Senator Ludwig is here to help the government to reduce red tape by having a more streamlined system of FOI. I believe it protects the privacy of individuals by making sure personal information is removed. The government needs to acknowledge that its record on FOI, since coming to office, is a very patchy record.
The government remains committed to defunding the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner—an office that provides oversight of large numbers of FOI decisions in a way that is far more cost-effective than having to go to the AAT, with all of the costs that involves. I am currently in the middle of an issue involving some Defence documents that I am looking for through the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner—and I have just reminded myself that I need to provide a response to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner's request to respond to Defence's position. Who knows, I may end up in the AAT over that request relating to defence issues arising from the Winter-White report that I believe ought to be disclosed to the people of Australia.
Office of the Australian Information Commissioner figures reveal that in the 2014-15 financial year it finalised 482 applications for review of FOI decisions and finalised 82 FOI complaints. If you consider what it does and what the costs would be if you went to the AAT, you can see it is a very cost-effective agency. It is a false economy to defund that office. I think it is interesting to reflect on an opinion piece by Sean Parnell, The Australian's FOI editor, headed, 'Open government? We’re still waiting'. He said:
The introduction of tougher security laws and secrecy provisions in Canberra has yet to be balanced out by any increase in government transparency or citizen engagement.
He made the point that:
While Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister promising to be “truly consultative” and support “open government,” any such change has so far been internal, with no obvious policy or cultural shift.
He refers to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the cuts to that office—the attempts to defund that office—which are very disturbing.