Senate debates

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Australian Information Commissioner Bill 2010; Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2010

Second reading

Debate resumed.

1:22 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I indicate on behalf of the opposition that, with the amendments that have been foreshadowed to us by the Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary—and in particular foreshadowed in the minister’s letter to me of the week before last—the opposition is in a position to and does support the Australian Information Commissioner Bill 2010 and the Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2010. The story of how we came to this position is a long and in many ways sorry one. What in its original form was represented as a considerable enhancement to the freedom of information laws of Australia—laws which I might say were introduced originally by a Liberal Attorney-General, the late Senator Peter Durack, during the Fraser government—in fact, under close scrutiny, appeared to be a very severe curtailment of freedom of information in this country. When these bills were referred to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee, that committee discovered in particular a proposal to remove the reversal of the onus of proof provided for in section 61 of the Freedom of Information Act so as to cast the onus of proof upon an applicant rather than upon a minister or the minister’s delegate seeking to defend a decision to refuse to disclose information.

To understand why this is such an important issue, it is important to appreciate this. Freedom of information laws operate on the assumption that, unless cause is shown by government why information ought to be withheld from a citizen, the information should be available to the citizen. There are perfectly appropriate exceptions made to that principle, the most obvious of which of course is in relation to national security. There are others as well, including protection of other people’s privacy, protection of commercial-in-confidence information and so on. If a refusal of an application under the Freedom of Information Act occurs then the applicant—that is, the citizen seeking the availability of the information—has a right of appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. It has always been the case that a party seeking to overturn an adverse decision or a refusal by the minister has had the benefit of a reverse onus. That is what section 61 of the act provided. That has always been uncontroversial.

I have taken the trouble of going as far back as to look at the original report of the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs of November 1979, which reported on the first iteration of the Freedom of Information Act—that is, the Freedom of Information Bill 1978. I discovered that, from the very first occasion that freedom of information legislation was introduced into this chamber, it has been uncontroversial that a citizen who is faced with the refusal of an access request and wishes to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to overturn that refusal enjoys a reverse onus—that is, before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal it remains for the government, for the minister or his delegate, to justify the refusal to grant access to the citizen.

There is a very important reason why that should be so. Once an application for access to a document is refused, the applicant has no way of testing whether or not the appropriate criteria and statutory tests have been observed by the decision maker who was responsible for the refusal. How on earth is an applicant appealing to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to be in a position even so much as to mount an argument as to why the decision about refusal of access to a document was wrong when ex hypothesi they cannot have the document themselves? They would not be able in any conceivable set of circumstances to discharge an onus of proof that lay upon them to show why the decision was wrong. In the words used by coalition senators in their dissenting report following the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee’s hearing:

The government, the decision maker, the minister or his delegate have a monopoly of information, so the practical effect of removing the reverse onus in section 61 of the act would be to make any decision to refuse access for all intents and purposes unchallengeable on appeal.

Yet in their original form that is what these bills sought to do. Under cover of a lot of rhetoric about reforming and expanding freedom of information laws, what the Rudd government was originally planning to do in these bills was to remove the reverse onus in section 61 so as to make any refusal of access to a document practically unchallengeable. It would have been the greatest reversal of freedom of information practice in the history of the Freedom of Information Act. Astonishingly and to the very great discredit of those responsible for the preparation of the bills and their presentation to the Senate committee, this fundamental change—this extremely significant and deleterious change to section 61 of the act—was in fact included in a schedule presented to the Senate committee as a miscellaneous technical amendment.

Just think about that. Dwell and reflect for a moment on the supreme irony that, in a bill which falsely claimed to be expanding and reforming the freedom of information regime, an amendment which would have set back the regime to make it practically unworkable was itself concealed from the Senate committee by being treated as a technical minor amendment. That is hardly freedom of information; a conspiracy to conceal highly material information from the Senate committee would be a better description. Nevertheless, due to the industry of coalition senators and, in particular, Senator Scott Ryan, this anomaly was discovered and highlighted.

A number of witnesses before the Senate committee who were deeply experienced in freedom of information practice dwelt upon the effects of the removal of the reverse onus in section 61. One of those witnesses was Mr Mark Robinson, who appeared on behalf of the Law Council of Australia. Mr Robinson is one of Australia’s most experienced freedom of information practitioners, having appeared in hundreds of applications both for and against governments and, in the course of 17 years, having sat as a judicial officer hearing applications under the New South Wales Freedom of Information Act and, in fact, having been the draftsman of the New South Wales Freedom of Information Act.

In response to an assertion on behalf of the government that the removal of the reverse onus of proof in section 61 would have no practical effect on the operation of the act, this is what Mr Robinson had to tell the committee:

It is an irrelevant assertion. I say this because the applicant does not normally know what document it is that he or she is seeking, and he or she does not normally know what it contains. They may think they do but they may be wrong. And how can an applicant meaningfully assist the tribunal by presenting his or her case first and by bearing the onus of proving something? You only have to think about it logically, I submit. As an applicant I can stand up and say: ‘I put an FOI application in. I don’t have to tell you why I did it, because that’s irrelevant. I don’t have to tell you who I am, because that’s irrelevant. I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do with the document when I get it, because that’s often irrelevant—and I want the document.’ And I sit down. Now, how is that possibly going to discharge the onus of proof? It puts an applicant in an impossible position, both practically and as a matter of fairness, and as a matter of law. On one view of it, that onus could never be discharged, ever.

I put to Mr Robinson the proposition that:

… it is almost impossible to imagine how an applicant could succeed if he bears the onus of proof since he has no means of knowing what is in the document.

When I asked him whether he agreed with that proposition, Mr Robinson said:

Absolutely …

He went on to say that the impact of the government’s proposal to withdraw the reverse onus of proof in section 61 would be to undermine the Freedom of Information Act. He went on to say:

The most stark way to appreciate this is to accept that, in most FOI cases since the beginning of the FOI Act, in the AAT the Commonwealth goes first. The Commonwealth agency has presented its case first in every case I have been involved in and in almost every case that I am aware of … third parties who want to preserve their trade secrets may sometimes come in. They are called reverse FOI applications by other people. The situation is different there, but in the ordinary FOI case of an FOI applicant wanting a document from the Commonwealth the Commonwealth goes first. This will change that.

I asked Mr Robinson whether he agreed that the effect of section 61 was at variance with the declaration of intent in the objects clause of the bill that it would expand access to information. Mr Robinson said that, yes, he did. In response to questions from Senator Scott Ryan, Professor Spencer Zifcak, the Vice-President of Liberty Victoria, also expressed concern that the removal of the onus of proof would, for all practical purposes, undermine the operation of the FOI Act.

Government senators in their majority report of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs thought that they had reached a halfway point by suggesting that perhaps there could be no onus of proof provision in the amended act. But, of course, that does not meet the objection. An applicant for information under the FOI Act, faced with a situation in which a monopoly of knowledge is possessed by those who have refused an access application, is in no better position if there is no onus of proof than if the onus of proof lies upon them. The only way that FOI practice can be observed is if the onus of proof—the onus of upholding the refusal to provide information, in other words—lies on the decision maker—that is, the minister or their delegate because only they, as I have said in my remarks, are in a position to know what is in the document whose disclosure they are resisting.

I am pleased to say that at long last the minister, Senator Ludwig, saw the sense in what the opposition was saying and saw the sense in what was contained in the coalition senators’ minority report. In a letter which he directed to me the week before last Senator Ludwig capitulated on the issue of onus of proof just as the government capitulated on a number of other issues which will form the government amendments which are about to be moved by the minister. It is for that reason that the opposition now find ourselves in a position in which we are able to support this legislation. We support its intent; we support the other aspects of the legislation which I have not dwelt upon in these remarks. The only reason this legislation has now become uncontroversial is that the government capitulated to the opposition. The government was found out in trying to slip past the Senate and a Senate committee, under the ruse that it was a technical amendment only, a proposal which would have rendered unworkable the entire scheme of Australia’s freedom of information legislation.

There is so much heroic rhetoric from the Rudd government. This is yet another example of the total disconnect between the heroic rhetoric of the Rudd government and the reality of its very nasty and deceptive political practice. On this occasion, as on so many other occasions, the Rudd government has been found out. It has backed down from its attempt to distort and set back Australia’s freedom of information laws. I particularly want to thank Senator Scott Ryan for his efforts in revealing this attempt to get what would have been a very, very deleterious amendment past the scrutiny of the Senate. In the form in which it will now be amended, the opposition is in a position to support the legislation.

1:38 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian Greens welcome the Australian Information Commissioner Bill 2010 and the Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2010 and congratulate the government on having taken these important steps towards greater openness in government. I would like to add my remarks to those of Senator Brandis on the issue of onus of proof. He put it probably more eloquently and at greater length than I was going to, but those concerns were certainly shared by the Australian Greens. I suppose in this instance the government is to be commended for at least acknowledging, under the weight of overwhelming evidence, that it was wrong rather than, as we see so many times in this place, simply just pushing ahead. As a result this legislation, while very significant, is now being debated as noncontroversial.

Information is central to knowing how our elected representatives are exercising their power and to hold our representatives to account. The Greens believe that open and transparent government is a prerequisite to an effective democracy. We welcome the government’s commitment to a pro-disclosure culture and a restoration of open and transparent government. We also look forward to the review of the fees and charges because very significant concerns were raised in the committee process about the interaction between processing charges and application fees. We urge the government to bear in mind that the costs of fees and charges should not be prohibitive for the kind of freedom of information requests that agencies normally deal with. Access to information for an individual or an organisation should not be determined by their ability to pay, as such fees and charges need to be set at a reasonable level. We also look forward to developments in the application of freedom of information to parliamentary departments and would appreciate being kept informed of any progress in this area—it was set aside from consideration in these bills.

Senators will probably already be aware that we have a number of amendments that we will seek to move when we shift into the committee stage. I will briefly foreshadow them now. I do not propose to tie up the chamber for too long when we get to discussion of those amendments. I would firstly say, as is so often the case with this government and, I suppose, with the previous government, that this is a package of generally good legislation that the Australian Greens support. We concur that it will improve transparency and accountability of government departments and of course for that reason we are supporting it. But there is always a catch. There is always a poison pill, and in the case of this particular legislation it is quite a serious one—that the government has proposed to shroud intelligence and security agencies entirely from the reach of the Freedom of Information Act. The minister will be aware that I raised these issues when we debated a less comprehensive FOI bill earlier. Those issues remain. They have not changed, and the government is persisting with this idea that existing public interest immunity grounds are not sufficient for some reason—and we have never heard a justification for why not—and that in fact the administrative decisions of agencies, or the amount of paper clips that they are ordering, should be permanently beyond the reach of freedom of information legislation.

So the amendments that we will move seek to remove the current exemption from the FOI Act granted to intelligence agencies. We believe that the scope of exemptions from the act are central to the act’s effectiveness and we do not believe that simply because a document originated in a security agency it automatically has implications for national security and should therefore receive automatic and whole exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. If the Greens amendments succeed, security and intelligence agencies will still have the entirely legitimate right to prevent material from being released through FOI application processes under the normal grounds that they use today, including issues of national security, issues of operational secrecy and the kinds of legitimate public interest exemptions that, throughout a long history of convention in the Australian Senate, have been allowed as legitimate reasons for these agencies to withhold information. We are not proposing that those exemptions lapse or that they should no longer apply, simply that it is at best lazy drafting to simply exempt these agencies from freedom of information entirely. So our amendments go to that effect.

The second part of our amendments provides guidance for a review of this situation which is profoundly unsatisfactory to the Australian Greens. We propose that this review should take place after the act has been in operation for two years to ensure that it properly addresses the Greens concerns about wholesale exemptions from the act, particularly in respect to intelligence agencies. I will be interested to hear the minister’s remarks before we close the second reading debate on that issue specifically, in expectation that the minister may give us some commitments in this regard. In fact a two-year review is a pretty poor substitute for good public policy which would surely have allowed that security and intelligence agencies should not be beyond the reach of an instrument as important as freedom of information. In fact, these are precisely the kinds of agencies for which oversight by the public and by the parliament is more important than ever.  I will make a couple of other concluding remarks when we move to the committee stage.

1:43 pm

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Manager of Government Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the opposition, the Greens and Senators Xenophon and Fielding for their support for early passage of this legislation through the Senate, and I also thank those senators who participated in the inquiry by the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee.

The Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2010, together with the Australian Information Commissioner Bill 2010 is, after all, concerned with significantly enhancing openness in government. The Rudd government has undertaken the first overhaul of the FOI Act since it was enacted in 1982, nearly 30 years ago. The passage of the FOI Act was a milestone for Australia. The Rudd government continues to recognise that we are responsible and accountable to the people we serve. For this reason, when we were in opposition we committed to overhauling the FOI Act and we have delivered on this promise. This legislation expressly recognises that giving the Australian community access to government-held information strengthens Australia’s representative democracy, recognises the role that this object serves to increase public participation in government processes and increases accountability in the government’s activities.

The Australian Information Commissioner Bill will also establish the first independent model to oversight FOI administration. Many of the reforms within that model, which provide for a framework for agency driven proactive publication of government information together with the single public interest test, are contained within these two bills, but this does not mark the end of the government’s commitment to ensuring an effective FOI regime and that the amended FOI Act meets the government’s object of enhancing openness provisions made in the Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2009 and in the Australian Information Commissioner Bill. A full review will be undertaken of the operation of the legislation two years from the commencement of the reform measures. These bills comprise the strongest package of measures to enhance public access to government-held information that this chamber has seen in nearly 30 years.

In foreshadowing an issue that the Greens have raised in relation to the review which I just mentioned, I have included a statement in the second reading speech in order to address the concerns raised by the Australian Greens. The review will also need to include a consideration of whether the exclusion of agencies, including intelligence agencies, from the application of the act is still appropriate and necessary. Naturally such a consideration would require reference to international practice and consideration of what is in Australia’s public interest. The government would be opposed to the first foreshadowed amendment. We think that second part, both in the second reading statement and with my statement on Hansard, goes some way to addressing the Greens issue. I know it does not go all the way, but I accept that this is a matter that the Greens take very seriously. In this instance, the government’s position is quite clear. We have articulated that we have got to what we consider to be an appropriate balance in this legislation.

Finally, the establishment of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner underpins the government’s objective to revitalise the FOI Act and also lays a stronger foundation for privacy protection and improvements in the broader management of government information.

Question agreed to.

Bills read a second time.