Wednesday, 13 May 2015
Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum relating to the bill and to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.
The speech read as follows—
Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015
Second Reading Speech
Senator Joseph Ludwig
I would like to thank the Senate for its consideration of my Private Senator's Bill.
In 2007 when the previous Labor Government was elected, we promised to put freedom of information at the core of our agenda to drive a shift to a pro-disclosure mode of governance. Labor went about changing the way in which freedom of information legislation was to be used in order to restore trust and integrity within government and enhance the public's right to know. Changes in the way that government and the public service operate can only be driven directly from the top. This creates a culture where we can advance governance in line with these goals. In government, I attempted to balance the Westminster convention, that governance requires some degree of confidentiality, and the very principles that underpin freedom of information. These two goals are not mutually exclusive; a strong FOI Act must seek to limit the release of certain information, to be balanced against a public interest threshold that favours disclosure. We did this when we were in Government and we will seek to further strengthen these principles in Opposition.
The Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015 seeks to amend the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (the FOI Act) to require government agencies and Ministers to publish the exact wording of freedom of information requests. It will also require government agencies and Ministers to publish a statement of reasons concerning their decision to allow, refuse or edit the release of requested documents.
A key objective of the FOI Act is to ensure that information about the "operations of departments and public authorities and, in particular, ensuring that rules and practices affecting members of the public in their dealings with departments and public authorities are readily available to persons affected by those rules and practices" is made available to the public.1
The amendments contained in this Bill seek to solidify and advance these core principles which are enshrined within the Act. It facilitates more practical use of freedom of information requests and enhances the principles of accountability and efficiency.
The Bill will achieve the purposes of:
These purposes will be achieved in the following ways:
1. By inserting a new definition of " working day " in the Act to eliminate confusion concerning time frames for publishing information where they include weekends and location-specific public holidays.
2. Where access to a document has been granted, by removing the option that an agency or Minister may publish on a website mere details of how the information may be obtained. The Bill ensures that information is available directly from an agency ' s or Minister ' s website, or a link on the website to another website where the information can be downloaded. This measure is designed to provide the public with easy access to documents released under the FOI Act.
3. Where an application is successful, by requiring an agency or Minister to publish the request and reasons for the decision before the end of 10 working days after the day the person is given access.
4. Where an application is successful, but documents are edited, by requiring an agency or Minister to publish the request and the notice under subsection 22(3) within 10 working days after the day the decision is made . Subsection 22(3) requires the agency or Minister to give the applicant notice in writing that an edited copy of the document has been prepared, the grounds for the deletions, and whether any matter has been deleted because it would cause the document to be exempt under the Act. If an applicant requests that a notice be given under section 22(4), the agency or Minister must publish the notice given in accordance with section 26 within 10 working days after the notice is given.
5. Where an application is unsuccessful, by requiring an agency or Minister to publish the request within 10 working days after the day the decision is made and the notice given in accordance with section 26 within 10 working days after the notice is given. A notice given in accordance with section 26 must, among other things, state findings on material questions of fact and the reasons for the decision, state the name and designation of the person giving the decision, and inform the applicant of their rights to review and complaint.
6. The Bill also requires the agency or Minister to publish the requests, reasons or notice on a website, without charge, by making them available for download, or publishing a on the website a link to another website where the information is available.
The Bill also seeks to protect the privacy of individuals by requiring that certain information be removed. Examples of information that may be removed include personal information, information about the business, commercial, financial or professional affairs of a person, or information that would be unreasonable to publish. Further, the Bill requires information to be removed if the Information Commissioner determines that it would be unreasonable to publish that information.
This Bill seeks to promote the core tenets of transparency and accountability within government decisions.
I commend the Bill to the Senate.
1 Secrecy Laws and Open Government in Australia (ALRC report 112).
I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.