Thursday, 18 June 2015
Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015; Second Reading
The Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015, presented by Senator Ludwig, I understand, on behalf of the opposition, proposes to amend the Freedom of Information Act to require government agencies and ministers to publish the exact wording of freedom of information requests. It would also require agencies and ministers to publish a statement of reasons concerning the decision to allow or refuse the release of requested documents. The bill has the stated aims of ensuring that transparency and accountability are included within the framework of government decisions concerning freedom of information requests, allowing the public to view requests that have been made and the reasons why documents were or were not released, allowing applicants seeking similar documents to build upon previous requests, and reducing duplication of requests.
They seem to be reasonable aims of the bill because accountability and transparency are essential in this building, in government and in parliament. That is why I think Mr Shorten really needs to become a bit more transparent and accountable. I read an article in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald, a newspaper that is not usually all that antagonistic towards the Labor Party. The first paragraph of this article states:
One of Australia's biggest builders paid Bill Shorten's union nearly $300,000 after he struck a workplace deal that cut conditions and saved the company as much as $100 million on a major Melbourne road project.
We hear a lot about accountability, particularly from the Labor Party and the Greens. I think governments should be accountable, and we as a government try to be as accountable as we can and as security conditions allow us to be. But if the Labor Party is so keen on transparency and accountability, then let's have some details about what effectively seems to be a $300,000 bribe to a union of which Mr Shorten, the current Leader of the Opposition in the other place, was in charge. I am not suggesting that Mr Shorten received any of that money himself or without further investigation that any wrongdoing perhaps occurred. I cannot be judge and jury. But clearly the question has been raised—not by me but, as I said, by an investigative journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald. And it seems from a skimming of the article that the journalist has done his work reasonably well and has raised a few issues that need explanation. That is what accountability and transparency are all about.
So, perhaps I might suggest to the mover of this motion that it is a good idea—it is nice to try to ensure that there are always improvements to accountability and transparency—but it would be a greater use of your talents, Senator Ludwig, if you perhaps tried to get a bit of transparency and accountability into the union movement and into the actions alleged to have involved the leader of your political party in the other place, because that is what accountability is all about. It is also important that in this country we have stable government, but it is important that we have stable oppositions as well, because good oppositions bring the best out in a good government. I see, again in this newspaper, that:
Shorten's right-wing faction has lost control of Labor's national conference …
That seems to be something that will be quite destabilising. And the editorial in that same newspaper says:
The position of Bill Shorten as federal Labor leader is becoming untenable.
Well, this is from the Sydney Morning Herald, Senator Carr. This is the paper that you continuously quote as an authority on just about everything. It is not the Australian, which you denigrate as often as you can. This is the Sydney Morning Herald investigative reporter, and he raises some questions that I think those of us who like transparency and accountability would like to see answered.
On that line of accountability and transparency, this bill has good intentions, but I think it is defective, and for that reason the government will not be supporting the bill as it is. Items 2 and 3 of Senator Ludwig's bill remove the option for an agency or minister to publish details of how information may be obtained rather than the information itself. Senator Ludwig stated that this amendment was designed to provide the public with easy access to documents, but what it will actually do is remove the flexibility where the information cannot be readily published on a website to provide details on how the information can be accessed.
The current flexibility ensures that there is no impediment for those who are interested in accessing the particular information while at the same time not imposing an onerous administrative burden on the agency. It may not be straightforward for an agency or minister to publish some documents in accessible formats on a disclosure log or to convert documents to such formats within 10 working days. This may be an issue, for example, if information has been redacted from a document or if voluminous documents are available only in hardy copy or in a PDF format. Removing the flexibility will impose an administrative burden on agencies and ministerial offices in preparing documents for publication within the 10 working days of the information being released. This could create challenges for agencies and ministers in managing increased FOI workload and could impact on processing FOI requests. That is one reason why we do not support this; there are others, but I do not think my time is going to allow me to go through them. I am sure senators who follow me in this debate will elaborate on some of them.
Again I go back to the broad principle of accountability—making information available to senators and members of the House and, through them, to the public at large through freedom-of-information requests. One of the best ways we can get information for senators and members in this chamber is the committee process, which in the Senate has been built up and refined over the years and is generally well regarded. But, of late, that process where senators can get information has been thrown into disrepute. Senator Ludwig is on a committee where Labor and the Greens have a four to two majority, but they have set down a hearing of this committee on a day they know the only two government members of that committee will not be available. That means the ability of senators in this chamber to get information and to establish accountability of public officials is limited. By a deliberate act of Senator Ludwig, Senator Collins, Senator Bilyk and the chair, Senator Wright, from the Greens political party they have set these important hearings down, with one days notice, on a day they know the two coalition members will not be there.
I am one of those two coalition members, I am deputy chair of the committee, but no-one had the courtesy to raise with me the possibility of a hearing tomorrow when this meeting was proposed just yesterday. Of course, I will be in Cairns supporting the Prime Minister when he launches the government's white paper on northern development, a very major step forward for Northern Australia. Everyone who read the papers over the week knew that was on, and the Labor Party would have understood that I would not be available all day tomorrow. And Senator Reynolds, the other member of that committee, has a longstanding commitment with another committee she is on, the defence committee, at the Amberley Air Force base in Brisbane. Again, members of the Labor Party would know about that. But, knowing that the two government members would not be available tomorrow, they have deliberately set down the hearings for a day they know government members will not be there. That makes a mockery of the system of Senate committees, which are all about achieving accountability and transparency.
I might leave my remarks there. Again I suggest to the mover of the motion that, if he is interested in accountability and transparency, he would be better off changing the decision of the committee he is on to set down a hearing for a day when no government senator can be available. I know it is a Greens-Labor decision. We have even suggested that the times of that meeting could be changed to accommodate another coalition senator who might have been able to leave another meeting early to be there. Of course, the Labor Party and the Greens were not interested in that. With a chair like Senator Wright, it is all about her convenience—as for transparency and accountability, who cares? So I am concerned about that.
Senator Ludwig, I admire the thoughts behind the bill we are debating. But, again, you would be doing a greater service to the nation if you could get Mr Shorten to be a little bit more transparent and a little bit more accountable for that $300,000 payment said to have been made to the union he ran to give a commercial company a $100 million saving. Those are the real issues of accountability that I would prefer Senator Ludwig to address rather than amendments which are technically not appropriate. Senator Ludwig, I have indicated one of the reasons and, as the debate goes on, my colleagues will demonstrate other reasons why this amendment bill should not be supported in the parliament.
I rise to speak on the Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015. The Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill seeks to amend the Freedom of Information Act 1982 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. Since the Australian parliament first considered introducing freedom of information legislation in the 1970s, Labor has worked to—
Senator Ludwig, I have been advised that you have already made your second reading speech via incorporation. You can speak when the debate is being closed so, unless it is your intention now to close the debate, I will put you at the bottom of the list and you can make your remarks then.
The Greens believe that open and transparent government needs to be a prerequisite to an effective democracy. Information is central to knowing how our elected representatives are exercising their power, and to hold our representatives to account. I wanted to put that statement on the record at the beginning before going into aspects of the Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015. The Greens do support the bill, but it is very much a stopgap measure that needs to be seen in the context of what Labor did on FOI matters when they were in government. There were missed opportunities then and there are missed opportunities with this bill that is before us now.
Ideally, government agencies should be making more information publicly available as a matter of course. There is widespread community support for broad FOI laws that ensure accountability and transparency of government. At the end of the day we are talking about people who are paid by the public using public money on matters, services, that will impact on the public. That information should be readily available and, in this day with so many digital platforms, that can be readily done. The degree to which it lags in Australia is very disappointing.
The other thing that is very relevant in this debate are the comments that are made by leaders of Labor and the Liberal-National parties when they are in opposition, which are usually very fine statements. But when they are elected we then see a retreat from those positions. It is interesting to note that this comment was made when the former Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, first took office—so I do acknowledge that she was in office—but then these fine words were not adhered to. In September 2010, she said:
… we will be held more accountable than ever before, and more than any government in modern memory. We will be held to higher standards of transparency and reform, and it's in that spirit that I approach the task of forming a government.
That was certainly welcome, and many people who followed this closely—anybody who was about to put in an FOI application—obviously expected that there would be higher standards of transparency and accountability. One assumption that you would take from that statement by the then Prime Minister was that there would be real encouragement, there would be real movement, in this area.
Also relevant to this debate is the comment from the Australian Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan. As many of you know, this is a position that is really being pushed out of the door by this current government, but his words were also very relevant. He said:
Access to information issues now have greater prominence in government. There is a marked increase in FOI requests for policy-related material, an upswing in applicants challenging access refusals through the OAIC's independent complaint and review processes, and more media reporting based on documents obtained by FOI requests. A clear message for agencies is that information disclosure issues are important not only when access requests are received, but when documents and records are created and programs that will attract public interest are being developed. Disclosure by design is becoming a necessary practice.
I wanted to give some context to this bill because it is a missed opportunity. That is what is so disappointing—that a Labor senator who has in fact worked in this area has brought forward such a minimal bill.
There are some suggestions. Let's remember what could have been covered and should have been covered and should now be in law. The provisions of the FOI Act regarding the Information Publication Scheme, the IPS, resulted from the 2009-10 review and commenced operation in 2011. This requires agencies subject to the act to publish a broad range of information on their websites. The Greens very much believe that the implementation of the IPS was an important step towards greater accessibility of government held information, but, again, they were only small steps. This is an area that could have been picked up in a bill like the one before us, to improve the current situation. We need to more actively promote cultural change within government agencies. This is an issue that often comes up at estimates. It is not just about changing the law; it is about changing the culture under which it operates. By looking at the details of the law and the regulations, we can achieve that. We need government agencies to proactively publish information about their activities. This is happening in so many other jurisdictions, where the default is that government information automatically goes up on websites.
I will come to the issue of exemptions—we are not talking about everything. The exemptions are there; the protections with regard to security are in place. It is a furphy when people suggest otherwise. To emphasise, Australia is far behind international trends of using digital platforms as a very quick and easily accessible way for the public to access information that they have a right to. Consideration should be given, we believe, to making it mandatory for agencies to publish information on themselves that is currently optional, including information about agency priorities and finances; lists including agency contracts, grants and appointments; and links to datasets, submissions to other bodies and policies. It needs to be comprehensive. It clearly is time for that.
Then there is the issue that we have debated in this parliament before and that needs to be revisited when we speak about FOI changes: the need for all agencies to be covered by FOI as a matter of principle. It was very disappointing and disturbing when Labor, Liberal and the Nationals voted for the bill that allowed that exemption to continue. The Greens believe that all blanket exemptions that place certain government departments and agencies beyond the reach of FOI laws should be removed. The workings of parliamentary departments and Australia's intelligence agencies should not be exempt from public scrutiny. The current FOI legislation already ensures protection of sensitive information by providing wide-ranging exemptions for documents that are held by agencies subject to the act. Exemptions are made for documents: that affect national security, defence or international relations; that affect enforcement of law and protection of public safety; to which secrecy provisions of enactments apply; that are subject to legal professional privilege; that contain material obtained in confidence; and that disclose trade secrets or commercially valuable information. To emphasise, the exemptions are there. That is why government departments should not be exempt overall—because within how FOI is handled the exemptions are there.
If blanket exemptions were removed, agencies coming under FOI laws would have recourse to these existing exemptions, which would adequately protect sensitive information—again, removing all those excuses and justifications for why not all government departments have been brought in. I congratulate the Australian lawyer Peter Timmins, who does outstanding work in this area. His comment on this issue is very relevant:
The effect of blanket exclusions is to remove from potential public scrutiny, and the accountability framework, information concerning the conduct of public functions and the use of public money without any balancing of the interests involved.
That is an issue that I believe will be revisited time and time again.
I really want to emphasise that public money is what keeps the House of Representatives and the Senate functioning, and the public have a right to know how that money is spent. There is no justification for that overall exemption. Parliament should not be beyond the reach of FOI. Greater disclosure of the workings of parliament and the work of MPs is critical to a healthy democracy.
The support for this change is worth sharing again with the senators. I have spoken about this before, but I believe it is so important that it warrants repeating. The respected Carter Center in the US advocates that all three government branches be subject to FOI law. A 2011 international FOI law survey marked Australia down to 39th out of 89 countries, partly because of this omission. And it is again worth remembering something else that we have spoken about before but that is highly relevant to what I am talking about and to the bill that is before us, because it is a missed opportunity. The previous Clerk of the Senate, Mr Harry Evans, also argued for the extension of the FOI Act to parliamentary departments, noting that exemptions already protect genuinely sensitive documents. That is such an important point that is so often glossed over.
We have a bill before us that will make some changes to how FOI operates, will make it easier for people to understand what has happened with applications and will reduce the chance of duplication. But, again, I suggest that that is very minimal in terms of what we have before us. This is an issue that I very much wanted to comment on, because when I saw this bill come forward and I first saw that Senator Ludwig was moving it, I thought there was an opportunity. When Labor moves into opposition there is sometimes a change in what they put forward, and I was hoping it would have been stronger legislation than what we have now, but it is certainly very disappointing.
Another area that is very relevant when discussing FOI is the issue of MPs' entitlements—an issue that we all know ends up in the media periodically: there is scrutiny, there are complaints and there are stories about it. Surely more of that information should be in the public domain. The Greens believe that it is essential that there is public access to information about parliamentarians' entitlements. I would argue that it is a very essential component of democracy. I mentioned before that where people are employed by the public, using public money for public services and amenities, then surely that should be open to thorough scrutiny. When it comes to the lawmakers—people like ourselves—it should be absolutely essential. But it is so hard for people to find out about the money that is allocated, how it is spent and what it is spent on. Again, considering that the data is saved and reported on in a digital form, it would be quite easy for this to change.
I would like to remind senators of the experience in Scotland. If you go to the website of the Scottish parliament you can click on any member and find out about the allowances and entitlements they have available to them and how they are spending them. It is very easy. Again, these are not difficult changes. They should not even be controversial. How we go about this should be quite automatic.
More accountable government would be achieved by releasing more information on the workings of parliament and the activities of MPs. I also would argue that I think it would help restore more confidence in the democratic process and more respect for politicians. We all know that a lot of people get cynical about the democratic process and about MPs. It is something that, I have to say, troubles me, because I obviously have considerable differences with my colleagues from other parties but I respect that they are out there representing their party or, if they are Independents, the platform that they have stood on. They are working hard for those measures. But a lot of people regard senators or MPs with great cynicism, and where I find that leads to is that they start disengaging from the democratic process. They think there is no point. Everybody would have heard their arguments and criticisms. Again, that is not healthy for the democratic process, and one way we can help restore that confidence in our parliamentary institutions is by being more open, particularly with how we ourselves use money. I would very much urge that people look at that website, because it is very easy to use. The information is readily there, and it is surely something that we should be able to change over to very quickly.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak about freedom of information issues in this parliament. However, I have to put on the record that, while the Greens will support this legislation, these are very small steps and it really is a missed opportunity to do the big-picture changes that FOI legislation in this country still needs.
I too rise to speak on the Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015. I have to say up-front that I will not be supporting the bill, because I believe this is yet another example of poorly thought-through policy by those opposite. It has a very catchy title that few if any in this place or in this country would not automatically nod and agree with, but unfortunately, when you read the detail, it does not achieve this. In fact, when I read the bill and started to consider the implications of it, I thought of the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza does the absolute opposite. In this case, it is doing exactly the opposite of the stated intent of this, and I would like to spend the rest of this time going through exactly why this does absolutely the opposite of what the catchy Labor title implies that it might do.
This is clearly another example of the Labor Party coming up with, as I said, a nice, catchy, populist title and ideas that sound great in principle but generally fall far short of the laudable titles and implications behind them. There are generally two categories in my assessment of these catchily titled bills and ideas that come from the Labor Party. First are those that have the facade and, when you open the door or knock it down, have nothing behind it; it is simply a catchy title or a populist idea or thought bubble. Second, there is a far more severe category of great thought bubbles and catchy titles from the Labor Party: those which not only waste billions of the taxpayer's hard-earned tax dollars but, in the case of programs like pink batts, can actually cost lives. As Senator Macdonald has just very eloquently said, the Labor Party talk about accountability and transparency, but clearly, as the front pages of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age show this morning, they talk the talk but they are not walking the walk, and they clearly do not practise what they are preaching.
Let us have a look at another example. When I was reading the bill this morning, really thinking about other examples that this clearly highlights, my mind turned to the Defence Amendment (Fair Pay for Members of the ADF) Bill 2014. I think all of those in this place will remember that bill that Senator Lambie put forward and that those opposite supported and voted for. Again, let's have a look at another nice, catchy title: Defence Amendment (Fair Pay for Members of the ADF) Bill 2014. Nobody in this place, and almost nobody in this country, would say that that is not a laudable and fair proposition: to provide fair pay for our defence personnel. But, as we unpicked it, we actually found out that the detail of the bill would have very unfairly disadvantaged all of our brave men and women in uniform because, far from the catchy title, what it actually would have done was to result in a significant cut not only in defence pay but also in allowances and entitlements. But yet again, those opposite supported a bill with a catchy title but, as George Costanza said, did exactly the opposite.
I am not sure what worries me more in the case of that bill and others like it and this one here today: firstly, did the ALP just read the title of the bill and say, 'Oh, that's a nice, catchy thing; I'm going to vote for it.'? Or secondly, did they read the bill and not understand the implications of the bill, that in fact it would do the opposite of what the title suggests? Or, thirdly—and probably the most worrying of all—did the Labor Party not only read the catchy title but read and understood the implications of that bill? As I said, there are three possible alternatives in that defence fair pay bill and I think it is exactly the same thing here today.
I would now like to go through why this is absolutely the opposite of what the title suggests. Let's have a look at the stated aims of the bill. First of all, the stated aim is:
… ensuring transparency and accountability are included within the framework of government decisions concerning freedom of information requests; …
That sounds pretty reasonable to us all. Secondly:
… allowing the public to view requests that have been made and the reasons why documents were or were not released; …
Again, that sounds pretty reasonable to me. Thirdly:
… allowing applicants seeking similar documents to build upon previous requests; and
reducing the duplication of requests.
Again, when you look at those three they sound pretty reasonable. But then you go on to read the detail of the bill and the bill actually achieves quite the opposite. Let me now go through and explain exactly why.
In practice, I believe this bill will compromise the effectiveness of the decision-making process under the FOI, not make it simpler or more transparent. It will not ensure accountability or transparency, the two stated aims of this bill. It will not reduce duplication of requests and it will not reduce the number of requests. But what it will do is impose further unnecessary steps and procedures into existing processes for access to government information under the FOI Act. It will also increase the costs and complexities of FOI processing and result in significant processing delays, thereby actually doing the opposite and making it longer, more complex and harder for people to get access to the FOI request and information.
That is slightly inconvenient for those opposite, but I will go through exactly how that occurs now. Currently, under section 11C of the FOI Act, government agencies and ministerial offices are required to maintain an online disclosure log. The disclosure log must either publish information made available in response to an FOI request or provide details on how the public may obtain that information. But the bill before us proposes a raft of amendments to section 11C, including removing the option of providing details of how the public may obtain the information and requiring the publication of the exact wording of the FOI request. It also requires publication of the statement of reasons concerning the decision to allow or refuse the release of the requested documents.
The logic behind these amendments is to provide the public with easy access to documents released under the FOI Act. Again, it sounds good but if you look at the detail then that is actually not what will result. These amendments remove the current flexibility in the system. The current legislation ensures there is no impediment for those who are interested in accessing that particular information, while at the same time not imposing an onerous administrative burden on the agency. But as we know, not all FOI requests are straightforward. It may not always be possible for an agency or minister to publish some documents in accessible formats on a disclosure log or convert the documents to an accessible format within 10 working days.
It will be government agencies who have to try to manage the fallout of the increased workload in processing FOI applications. It was Labor who introduced the current log requirements, together with an information publication scheme as part of their package of FOI reforms in 2010. At the time, Labor stated that these reforms were intended to reduce the number of FOI requests over time. However, again, the opposite occurred. As reported in the Hawke FOI review, implementation of the information publication scheme and disclosure log requirements have in many cases increased FOI-processing costs, with resources being diverted from other key areas to assist with FOI processing. As well as increasing the cost of FOI processing—again, the opposite of what Labor said the intent was—these Labor initiatives have not resulted in any reduction in the number of FOI requests received by agencies and ministers. Again, this is the opposite of what they wanted to achieve in 2010. In fact, since the Labor FOI reforms commenced in 2010, the number of FOI requests has increased from 23,605 in 2010 to 28,643 this year, a significant increase when their policy was designed to do the opposite just as today their policy is designed with a catchy title and to do one thing but again will result in the opposite and actually make it even worse.
This bill also requires agencies and ministers to publish the exact wording of FOI requests as well as provide a statement of reasons outlining the decision to either allow or refuse the release of requested documents. I have to ask: what is the purpose of asking busy government officials and offices to provide a statement outlining why the information was granted in full? This new provision on its own will impose a substantial additional administrative burden on agencies and ministerial officers and, given past experience with your last reforms, will result in even more processing delays in other aspects of FOI processing. Again, far from streamlining the process, their last reforms made it slower, made it harder and increased the number of FOI requests, and I would argue this new bill will do exactly the same—make it worse, not better.
Publishing the reasons for decisions will absolutely result in already overburdened agencies dealing with nearly 29,000 FOI requests a year, already struggling to manage the increased heavy workloads courtesy of those opposite, taking shortcuts and publishing reasons rather than making a decision based on the circumstances of the particular FOI request. Rather than taking the time required to fairly consider individual FOI applications, it will absolutely increase the temptation to template and rush these through to try to get through the burden. I think that would clearly make the quality of what comes out of these FOI requests less transparent, less considered and less in the public interest.
Senator Ludwig also states this measure will facilitate more practical use of freedom of information requests and will reduce duplication of requests. Senator Ludwig could not be more wrong in this respect. You only have to go back to the experience of the changes brought in by those opposite in 2010 and have a look at the evidence of what happened. There was a catchy title, but it was not delivered. In fact, the opposite has been delivered. Fast forward five years and there is another catchy Labor title and one that will clearly make things worse, not better—less transparent and less accountable. Conversely, the Abbott government is committed to a transparent, accountable and open government and we cannot support these amendments, because this will do the opposite.
The FOI Act is undoubtedly an important accountability measure that facilitates the open and transparent transactions and operations of a government, and this bill will increase the burden on government departments without any positive effect on FOI procedures. It certainly will not achieve the detail of the bill.
That brings me back to that Seinfeld episode and George Costanza thinking one thing—in this case a nice, catchy title that everyone would nod at and say: 'Yeah, that's really good and that's really important. Let's support it.' When you open up the detail and start to have a look at what is actually in the bill, it is absolutely the opposite of the title. As it was in 2010 as evidence of time has shown, this is just another rerun not only on FOI but across many other policy areas. Those opposite trot out wonderful populist ideas but rarely put the intellectual rigour and planning in place to implement sound public policy.
As for the Defence Amendment (Fair Pay for Members of the ADF) Bill 2014, which said that it was supposed to be fair pay, which everybody would assume to be increased pay, the detail was quite the opposite. Had it been passed by the lower house, it would have resulted in significant pay cuts from the new pay deal not only in Defence pay but also in all of their conditions and entitlements.
With this bill today, I see three options. One is that those opposite really do not care enough to read beyond a catchy title. They say, 'Yes, we're supporting fair defence pay,' or, 'Yes, we're supporting increased FOI entitlements. Look, we've got a nice catchy title here. We're supporting it.' Either it is just a catchy title and nothing else beyond, or they have actually read the detail of these bills and do not understand the implications, which is almost as concerning in this place, or they like the populist, catchy titles and the complete opposite impact inside, and they simply do not care about the implications. Whether it is pink batts or an NBN that was developed on the back of a coaster and has cost taxpayers millions, ultimately we have three options, and none of them, I think, reflects well on the state of public policy and debate in this place. If a bill that has a catchy title but does the complete opposite of what the title suggests is the best that those opposite can come up with for the people of Australia, either they have not read it, they do not care or they do not understand what is in it. I think that does not reflect well for this place.
It is for those reasons that I and those on this side will not be supporting this bill. While we, like those opposite, like a good, catchy title and believe in the importance of the FOI Act, this will make the situation worse and not better, with less accountability and less transparency for Australians. So I will not be supporting this bill.
Many of the issues that come before this place attract great public interest and comment. Newspaper articles are published by the dozen, hours of radio are filled, and senators and our colleagues in the other place are deluged with phone calls, emails and letters from constituents. Freedom of information legislation is not typically one of those issues. The manner in which freedom of information applications are submitted, processed, responded to and dealt with by governments is not a subject that normally gets the blood racing. It is just not front-page news. It can seem legalistic, arcane, complicated and dull. I doubt very much that any of the speeches on the Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015 will go on to form the stuff of parliamentary anecdotes in the years to come, even though, sadly, Senator Reynolds believes that it has a catchy title.
All of this is unfortunate, because freedom of information and transparency in government are vital to a thriving democracy. Whether they realise it or not, preventing the government of the day from acting in secrecy is one of the bulwarks that people have against creeping totalitarianism, corruption and inefficient administration. It was that creeping totalitarianism to which Senator McGrath referred in his adjournment speech on Monday night, celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. In doing so he drew a long bow—a weapon which would provide the English with a decisive military advantage in the centuries to follow—and suggested that it was some imagined future Labor government which threatened the freedoms of generations of Australians to come. His wild imaginings fell well wide of the mark. The threat to our future lies not with a government dedicated to serving the interests of working people but with a government which loves secrecy, disdains transparency and treats with contempt not only the legitimate questioning of Her Majesty's opposition but also the requests of the people for details as to the working and reasoning of their government. This threat lies not in the future; this threat exists here and now under this government. Unless they accept the sensible amendments proposed by Senator Ludwig, it is they, not Labor, who threaten to be the King Johns of tomorrow.
Without freedom of information, the people cannot make a true decision at the ballot box, nor can they be accurately said to be genuine participants in the democracy. Incompetent or malicious governments the world over benefit from secrecy. Conversely, to borrow a cliche, sunlight is the best disinfectant for such things. This bill seeks to increase the sunlight and improve the government, whichever party is in power.
Before I turn to the specifics of the bill, I might speak in praise of Senator Ludwig's absolute commitment to transparency in government. His office has organised what must be hundreds of 'freedom of information' requests of the government, as well as assisting countless other offices to do the same. There would hardly be an area of administration untouched by his efforts. In seeking out the facts in his tireless way, he has done the parliament and his country a great service and I for one am thankful for it.
In doing so, Senator Ludwig is acting consistent with a Labor tradition stretching back over 40 years. It is Labor which has always championed openness in government. From the freedom of information legislation first brought forward under Gough Whitlam to the more recent and thoughtful contributions of Senator Faulkner, it is Labor which has always striven to take the Australian people into its confidence and expose to them, openly, how the government works on their behalf providing thereby a contrast between the transparency of Labor and the secrecy of the coalition.
In furtherance of government transparency Senator Ludwig has proposed this bill, amending the Freedom of Information Act in a number of small but significant ways. The bill ensures that information will be made directly available to the public from an agency's or minister's website, rather than mere directions to where it is available. It requires successful applications to be accompanied by the relevant minister or agency publishing the application and the reasons for its success. It requires edited documents to be accompanied by a written explanation for the edits. It requires unsuccessful applications to be followed by the publication of any findings of material fact involved in that decision. And it requires the provision of all of this to the public, free of charge. It seeks to limit the unjustified editing which can be used as a shield by governments to deny members of the public access to the information which they might genuinely and legitimately seek. The transparency which the bill introduces will improve efficiency by reducing the likelihood of repeated requests for the same information. And, while the bill promotes openness, it does not compromise the privacy of individuals but rather provides additional protections for those seeking to access their personal information.
As I said at the outset, much of this may seem at first glance to be arcane. But the fact remains that transparency is crucial. We have seen the current government, very recently, fail to answer straight questions and instead hide behind phrases like 'operational matters'. We have seen antics like those of the agriculture minister—the ham-fisted attempts of his office to change the details of one of his answers in the House of Representatives. The protracted attempts to avoid transparency in the handling of subsequent FOI requests led to a breakdown in the relationship between the minister and his head of department and to the controversial dismissal of the department head—a talented and respected public servant. We have seen this Liberal government attempt to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, which oversees freedom of information and privacy law—and, when they failed in their bid to abolish that office through the parliament, they simply defunded it. Even in the emerging pattern of secretive and opaque behaviour that is coming to characterise this government, the attack on the Information Commissioner stands out as an alarming development and one that deserves greater attention. On 20 May The Canberra Times reported:
… three former Supreme Court judges questioned the constitutionality of the decision, saying the government had bypassed Parliament and "achieved the same result by the power of the purse".
… the new Abbott government began a return journey to a dismal past. In the eyes of the government, FOI had advanced too far. It therefore set out to abolish the office's FOI roles and, effectively, to return to the old, deeply flawed FOI system …
The government's intentions became clear in May last year. The 2014-15 budget provided funding for the office only until December 31, 2014. Consistently with this, the government also introduced a bill to abolish the office and, with it, the enlightened Faulkner FOI regime. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives in late October 2014. It was introduced into the Senate … There it has languished, apparently abandoned by a government content to ignore its fundamental responsibility to execute the law.
I am quoting from these judges here:
Having failed to pass the legislative amendments that would have effected its purpose, the government has achieved the same result by the power of the purse. It has ignored the law, but won a tactical victory. Expedience has again trumped principle.
The result is deeply disturbing. Greater secrecy has been reintroduced. Government is now less transparent and accountable. More particularly, its fiduciary duty to us as our public trustee has been breached. That duty is to place the public interest first.
This is all a quotation from the article by the three former justices, who conclude by asking:
Where now is the election commitment to increased transparency and accountability?
Where, indeed? One is forced to wonder what sort of government would go to such lengths to avoid scrutiny of itself. One does not have to wonder what the results of a lack of scrutiny would be: worse government for the people of Australia and less they can do about it.
Just this morning, further evidence came into my hands of the opacity of this government in dealing with an important issue in my state of Western Australia. In that regard, my House of Representatives colleague, Alannah MacTiernan released a statement that I would like to share:
The Abbott and Barnett Governments are pulling out all the stops in a bid to block the truth coming out about the flawed $1.6 billion Perth Freight Link project.
This week the Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development refused to release any documents not already in the public domain relating to the Perth Freight Link.
Traffic counts, traffic projections and cost estimates underpinning the project were considered too sensitive to release — it was claimed releasing them would damage Commonwealth-State relations.
The Department and Main Roads WA also argued—
Listen to this—
that if a document is not in the public domain, it is "inherently confidential" and can be exempted from the FOI process.
Alannah MacTiernan says:
I have been attempting to get hold of these documents for almost a year.
The Department has also demanded more than $2500 in charges for the search, claiming the documents were wanted for personal interest, not the public interest. That absurd decision is being challenged in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
It was ludicrous for the Department to claim it was not in the public interest to release documents relating to a highly contentious and vastly expensive infrastructure project.
How can having the traffic counts and traffic projections on this colossal project undermine the relationship between the Commonwealth and WA?
The truth is that this project was ill-conceived and ill-researched, and the Abbott and Barnett Governments will do whatever it takes to stop the truth from coming out.
That is the approach of this government to freedom of information, to maintain that if information is not out there already then, clearly, it must be inherently confidential and it is nobody else's business! That is not freedom of information; that is governing by secrecy. Politicians cannot be allowed to weaken the system that ensures their behaviour is accountable to voters. If they are, we will have appointed the poachers to be gamekeepers.
So 'freedom of information' law is anything but trivial. Ensuring that governments cannot operate in secrecy is vital. Rather than dismantling those procedures and institutions that protect democracy, this parliament should be strengthening and protecting them. And this bill does exactly that.
I hope that senators opposite, good men and women, reverse the trend of this government to close down transparency and instead support this bill. It might not repair all the damage that has been done in recent times to freedom of information, but it is a start. It is important and they should vote for it, even though it is not front page news. It is the right thing to do.
I listened very intently to the contribution by Senator Bullock. I hope this is not a career-limiting thing, but he is one of my favourite senators on the other side of the chamber! I do not think it is principally because I think he is a very fine stature of a man—quite attractive, with that mop of grey hair and a chin or two more than either of us would like! It is more the case that you are a true warrior for the Labor Party. That is reflected when you have to come into this place of course and argue the case for something that you could not possibly believe in.
This bill is about process and it is very interesting to see our colleagues from the other side make a contribution to the question of transparency. In the week that we had the second edition of 'The Killing Fields'—I think that is the term used. I was too–
excited about the show itself to commit the title to memory. Additionally, there must have been discussions this morning about not proceeding with this bill as a result of that contribution to the public this week. Fortunately, without freedom of information, we did finally get a bit of transparency and it was good to see that many of your colleagues gave valuable time to provide the support footage in the exercise.
It is also interesting that the architect presented—and I know Senator Ludwig is currently sitting up in his office watching my contribution, because I am told that he does that frequently. But to have Senator Ludwig take a point in relation to matters that are underpinned by assertions that this government is anything but transparent is a remarkable choice. I will be watching as this contribution goes through to the end and Senator Ludwig finally puts his foot on the sticky paper as to what the actual motive for this is.
Firstly, I am a very proud member of a coalition government that is not just transparent but the need for people to seek information from this government is less than any government before it. We go and we tell the people exactly what we are going to do and then we stick by our promises to the absolute letter. So the need for people to access information from the Abbott government through the medium of freedom of information is much less than is required by others.
I digress: let me come back to the choice of Senator Ludwig as the architect, author and presenter of this bill on behalf of the Labor Party and their coalition partners, the Greens. I would love to have a discussion and a debate with Senator Ludwig about transparency after his contribution to the Queensland inquiry. Let's roll that down from the start: the Queensland inquiry was presented to the members of this place for support so that we could be very probative on issues to do, in this case, with the Queensland government.
Let's talk about transparency. The first thing that Senator Ludwig did in those circumstances was to ensure that this thrust for transparency and to gather information so as we could make a determination about the behaviour of the Queensland government did not extend and in fact was time barred for the administrations of the Labor Party in my home state of Queensland. Imagine that: the first test of transparency was confined only to someone else other than the Australian Labor Party. This is the author of your bill; this is the champion of transparency and adjustments to the freedom of information bill to ensure that people can access information.
Using his votes and the votes of your Senator Ketter on that inquiry, they absolutely stifled the ability of coalition senators who were on the inquiry to bring particular witnesses before the inquiry. For example, Senator Bullock, I am happy, if you are have got five minutes afterwards—I have got a couple of teabags there—for you to come round. We will throw a bit of hot water on them, and I will go through this for you point by point.
The fact of the matter is we wanted particular witnesses before that inquiry, so let's talk about transparency. For example, we wanted Mr Palmer, who was at the heart of applications; yet, Senator Ludwig supported in that case the chair of the committee—then a member of PUP—by using their numbers to block the ability for us to examine particular witnesses, including Mr Palmer. This is a transparency discussion, and I was so excited to see this on the 'Red' today, because it gives me an opportunity to give voice to some of these issues.
Recently we have seen colleagues on the other side use whatever measure they possibly can with the scheduling of committee inquiries and committee meetings in this place to ensure that no members of the coalition are available—measures such as short notice. In the last 48 hours one of the committees that I am involved in has set dates for hearings tomorrow, with the full knowledge that some of the witnesses are not available and most of the coalition senators who have some corporate knowledge of the issue are also not available.
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
I know that Senator Bilyk is particularly sensitive to this issue.
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
Senator, you should just sit quietly while I give you your spoonful of olive oil.
My apologies, Mr Acting Deputy President. I should not be distracted by that, because it will diminish my contribution in the time I have. Let us go back to Senator Ludwig, the author and the architect of this. Let us go back all the way to 2011. You want to talk about transparency? You want to talk about process? Let us talk about the cessation of the live cattle trade. Let us talk about the fact that, as I understand it—I was not in this place at the time but I have taken a great interest in this particular subject—negotiations had taken place, discussions had occurred in this place and everyone left this place one evening in the belief that certain things would happen, and of course that is not what happened on the following day. The government used their numbers and they brought down a billion-dollar industry. You want to talk about transparency and process? There ought to have been a very significant due process involved there, with transparency, for the government to explain to the stakeholder constituents—in this case the entire northern beef industry—what they were going to do.
But of course the only way we get transparency with the Labor Party is to take an hour of our valuable time on Tuesday nights to have a look at 'The Killing Fields'. You want to talk about transparency? There it was. 'The Killing Fields' reminded me of when I used to be in mustering camps. You would start the day on a pony and by about mid-morning—and as someone who has a bit of weight I probably went through more ponies than most—their legs would go under them a bit and they would start to wobble, so you would just swing your leg off and throw the saddle onto another pony and away you would go, hoping that by mid-afternoon the first pony would be fresh enough to go into service again. That is what we saw from the Labor Party with their leadership in their last term: just change prime ministers when their legs get a bit weak under them and they might not be operating as efficiently as their colleagues might like. If you watch the process—and this is about process—and you watch the transparency you will see that there was no transparency in that process. Some colleagues in the Labor Party were not even aware of what was happening. Today I would defy some of those colleagues to find out what did happen. They should run the test of putting an internal FOI request to the leaders of their party—some who still sit with us here and in the other place today—and see what sorts of answers they get, see how comprehensive or truthful they are.
I for one will not be lectured. I for one will not be pushed by the Australian Labor Party on matters of process that are annexed to matters of transparency. They have absolutely no credibility in this space. It is a pure political attempt to distract the good people of Australia to suggest by inference that my coalition government is anything bar transparent. This is to plant the seed, to try to have people think that there are some inhibitions on the part of our government with the processing of freedom of information applications—mind you, operating under the current provisions that were laid down by the Australian Labor Party. It was only 10 minutes ago that they were in government.
Is this some late-minute thought on the part of Senator Ludwig? He has been here a long time. If he felt strongly about these issues, if there were truly flaws within the freedom of information process, why didn't the good Senator Ludwig address these matters in 2010? Whilst technologies have moved on slightly, all of the major technology abilities to underpin some of these changes that Senator Ludwig wants were present then. One has to ask the question as to what are the politics of this? The politics are very, very clear. Senator Bullock was right to point out that he does not get a lot of email traffic on this. As I turn my mind to that, I do not think I have had, in my 18 months in the Senate, one representation. Like many of you I get many, many thousands of emails each week on various subjects. I do not think I have had one inquiry or one representation on the issue of transparency with the Freedom of Information Act. They are Senator Bullock's words, not mine, but he is spot on, and there is a reason for that.
I have to disagree with Senator Bullock when he says that this is not an issue on the minds of Australians. I promise you, if you are out there and you have burdened a state or federal government with a request for information,—and some of us have had to deal with people in these circumstances over our time, not just here in this place, but in life generally—you will find that it absolutely consumes them. Senator Bullock's explanation, I think, falls short and lacks credibility because the true explanation is that the freedom of information systems that we have around this country are working, and they are working very efficiently.
In terms of the publication of information, if an individual has made an application or has received a response to an application, there is no caveat on that individual from publishing that. If they think it is in the public interest or in stakeholder interest, they can publish that information themselves. So, you come back to the sheer intent of the process. Senator Ludwig knows that the government would not support this because it does not need to support it. Why would you go to the trouble of drafting a bill, why would you go to the trouble of taking up the very, very valuable time of this chamber to debate the bill when you know, full well, there is no need for the bill, and it is very unlikely that the government will respond positively to the bill? The answer is that this is, once again, a purely political stunt on the part of the Australian Labor Party to try to create an image or a perception that there is some flaw in the freedom of information legislation when there is not, and that there is some issue with transparency with respect to this coalition government when there is not. This has been one of the most open and transparent governments that I have witnessed over my time of political interest of 30-plus year, and I know I participate in the government.
I think that, if I had to put my foot on the sticky paper as to their motive, it does not come as any surprise to me that it has happened on the week when we have had that wonderful ABC show, one of the best productions the ABC has put out for a long time. I know it has been burdensome on their side of politics because I noted that, with some of the contemporary footage, some of your senators have had to take valuable time out. I hope they did not travel on the public purse as they made their way to Melbourne to sit on bench seats so that they could get footage of these people on the telephone pretending it was some conversation that taken place a long time ago.
I have to say that the Australian Labor Party should not pursue this bill. It is not required. It is not on the minds of Australians, as Senator Bullock has pointed out. It is a political stunt. It is one that this government will not be trapped with. It is one that this government will not be supporting. I certainly do not support it because I have better things on my mind. I have ideas for the resources of this nation that do not include hundreds if not thousands of additional staff having to photocopy and upload documents that are available and are under the control of others to publish if they so choose. I thank you for the ability to make this contribution.
The contributions this morning have been fairly wide-ranging, and I do not want to traverse ground that has already been covered, but I want to put a specific scenario to the Senate in terms of why transparency and accountability are required and need to be enhanced. Before I go to the details of that, I want to put on the public record some comments made in the Senate by Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann. He said:
I am sincerely shocked at how quickly this government have turned into a secretive government. I am shocked at the long and detailed presentation we have just had from the government, which essentially sums up one thing: they are running scared from openness, transparency and public accountability.
That is a very interesting comment that was made way back in 2009. On 13 May 2009 he said:
There will be always times when new people come to the Senate. They are going to face all these problems of trying to find out how to get the information and the documentation out of the government they need in order to properly scrutinise its activities. And clearly it was not in the political interests of the government but I think there is a serious question mark here as to whether there are proper and legitimate public interest grounds.
And in The West Australian Mathias Cormann said: 'Proper scrutiny leads to more informed debate and, ultimately, to improved public policy.
I will now quote from Hansard on 24 November 2011. He said:
On this occasion, the government does not want to tell us what it is up to. It wants to say to us, the parliament, to us, the Senate, representing people from across Australia: 'Just trust us. …. We know what we're doing. Just give us a blank cheque.' Well, that is not the way the Senate should operate, in particular on this occasion, because we have a terrible government. We have a terribly incompetent government. We have a government with a track record of failure, broken promises and incompetence.
These comments on the public record by Mathias Cormann really indicate his support for openness, transparency, probity, due diligence and proper process. But what do we have when we look at the situation in the regional processing centre space? We know there are regional processing centres at Manus and Nauru. If you are diligent and you go to the budget papers, you will see that there is a global figure of expenditure there. But you will not find a breakdown of how much is spent at Nauru or at Manus Island. And when you dig down and try and find that information it is not immediately available; your request is taken on notice by the department and they respond obtusely. So you take a shortcut, you go to AusTender and search for 'Australian government expenditure on Nauru in the year 2013-14'. And what you get is '$2.9 billion worth of expenditure'. A contract of $2 billion-plus. You get advice that a prison is being built in Nauru. Nauru has a population of 10,000 people. The Australian government is building a prison in Nauru.
All of this comes back to the central lack of probity and transparency. Dare I say it, the finance minister, as the minister responsible under the Public Works Act, can grant an exemption from scrutiny by the Public Works Committee of expenditure of money in excess of $15 million. This is one of the oldest standing committees of this parliament. It was put in place to scrutinise probity, value for money, public interest and return on investment. That committee has done its work for 100 years. But what we do know is that since 2012 when these processing centres were put in place, the Labor Party, despite Senator Cormann's denigration in his previous contributions, actually followed the act. Due to the urgency of the work, they sought an exemption and, quite properly, that passed through the House of Representatives. That exemption said: 'We value the work of the Public Works Committee. We will provide a briefing on what we are doing and we will keep the committee fully informed of further works as they come about.' Two exemptions were tabled by the Labor Party in the lower house and, quite properly, the work proceeded in accordance with the act. But as we know from direct evidence and an examination of the records of the Public Works Committee, there have been no referrals since then for proper public scrutiny of items of expenditure over $15 million within the definition of the act.
But what we also know through the published AusTender process is that there has been a huge spend. What we do know from a question or two to the department is that they have quite recently taken legal advice that the work they have done may not have been applicable under the Public Works Act because it could be construed as foreign aid to a country. Here we have a country with a GDP of about $112 million, an existing foreign aid component of about $20-plus million, a spend on AusTender of about $2.977 billion and an environment where we are cutting our foreign aid budget, but no, no, we are going to donate a prison to Nauru as part of our foreign aid budget; we have legal advice to do this. If this is not a lack of transparency, accountability and presenting matters and expenditure for a proper scrutiny of either a standing committee of the parliament or the Senate during estimates, I do not know what is.
We do know that, if it is an on-water matter, it is national security and you will get no information about anything—and I think that has been well demonstrated in the parliament in the last couple of weeks. Nauru is an island; it is not an on-water matter. The minister responsible and his department should have put the expenditure to the finance department either for an exemption or for scrutiny. They should not have just whistled through and spent hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money because they were in a hurry or because the department was in turmoil. This goes to the very heart of why there is a public works act and why there is public scrutiny.
I can tell you, Mr Acting Deputy President Whish-Wilson, it shocked me that a hearing was arguing about whether a marquee was a marquee or a tent. The only marquees I have ever been in were at the Melbourne Cup, and they were very grand. But I would not like to spend 402 days in a tent or a marquee—that is the average length of time a detainee in Nauru is spending in accommodation like that. They have been built with taxpayers' money with no scrutiny by the appropriate standing committee, and there is no immediately transparent way of getting this information.
We know from a website that over $40 million was spent on constructing a camp for 2,000 people. It was done in about three weeks. I had a little bit to do with construction when I was bit younger. If you are going to construct something for 2,000 people and it takes three weeks, it sounds like a tent city—or maybe it is a marquee city—or maybe they just got it from Toowoomba Party Hire, which is allegedly printed on one of the marquees in Nauru. Either way, if you are going to build a prison in another country and call it foreign aid, put up a camp for 2,000 people in three weeks and spend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money, then it should be appropriately scrutinised. And it ain't an on-water matter. There is no security in this. If you are going to go and lease ground on Nauru at $8.50 a metre—what legal tenure you have to it after that, I know nothing—and spend hundreds of millions of dollars putting infrastructure and improvement in place, there should be parliamentary scrutiny.
If you actually take these figures and divide them by the number of people in detention there, it is astronomical. If you simply take the number of refugees that are there and divide it by the money that is spent, we are spending over $1 million per person and, allegedly, to keep them in abject—and the allegations are widespread, with people prepared to give them in camera and in public. The allegations are that money has probably not been well spent, because people are complaining about mould, mildew, lack of privacy. You have a 10-metre by 12-metre marquee with a two-metre division and six families in there. And we spend hundreds of millions of dollars doing this without any parliamentary scrutiny. There appears to be no parliamentary scrutiny. The latest advice we got was that people had taken quite recent legal advice to say that some of it could be construed as aid to a foreign country. This goes right to the heart of openness and transparency.
As senators, we all know that through the estimates process it is often quite difficult to get an answer. I have taken it as a learning curve. I have put questions on notice, and the questions have come back with the answer 'No' or 'Ask another department' or some other deflective answer. So I just take that on the chin. But when we are actually spending what, I think, is $580 million in this budget year and if we add that on to what has been spent previously without proper scrutiny and process, I think the finance minister has a bit of work to do to reconcile his previous public statements of transparency and accountability with his actions as the person responsible for making sure that government expenditure gets the proper scrutiny of the parliament. There is a very strong case here that that has not happened. It really does go right to the heart of this attempt by Senator Ludwig to shine a light in areas where we need more information so that we can get it quicker and that it can be more transparent.
I want to give you a short summation of Nauru. At 30 May 2015, there were 718 asylum seekers at Nauru Regional Processing Centre—480 adult males, 126 adult females and 103 minors. As at 30 April, the average length of time a transferee spent on Nauru was 402 days. The total operating costs of the NRPC from July 2014 to 31 January 2015 were $276.45 million. We know from AusTender, as I have said, that in 2013-2014 the contracts and published spending by the Australian government on Nauru was $2,977,204,122.39.
Without the ability to get the true and correct information as to what applies to where and what it was spent on, you could do a very rough analogy. As of 30 June, 2,026 people had been transferred to Nauru, according to the department's annual report. If you compare the AusTender spend in that financial period to the number of transferees, that equates to a spend of about $1.47 million per transferee in Nauru. According to the department, in RPC2, Regional Processing Centre 2, where single adult males are held, they are provided with 10 by 12 vinyl marquees in three separate compounds. Each accommodation has been capped at 22 in a dormitory-style living arrangement. RPC3 provides accommodation in 10 by 12 vinyl marquees in six separate compounds. These are occupied by families and single adult families. Each accommodation marquee is separated by vinyl walls. Families with children under the age of four are placed in air-conditioned marquees. RPC1 is the accommodation for 850 staff in permanent, modular accommodation. The site provides for staff administration, catering facilities and a warehouse. Transferees use the RPC1 interview room, medical buildings, soccer field, educational facility and managed accommodation for high-risk transferees. We know from that short paragraph that there has obviously been a good spend on infrastructure.
If you do a cursory examination of Nauru you know that it is very short of water, so we have had to put in some reverse osmosis, or desal plants, or some water accommodation. We have had to put in place some infrastructure. We know that there was significant damage, up to $75 million in a riot, shall we say, on Nauru. We know all this because we read it in the paper.
We should be able to, in this place, in this Senate, properly scrutinise expenditure. If we are spending one point something million dollars on a transferee or detainee, I am not sure they should be in tents or marquees—choose your option. The department prefers the word 'marquee', and other people prefer the word 'tent'. It makes no difference. Once you are in a marquee for a month, it is a tent. If you are in it for 402 days, it is a pretty miserable tent. If it has mould on the inside due to weather like a Darwin, Northern Territory climate, it would be a pretty horrific place to stay.
My question is: has this been an open and transparent process? I am finding that it has not. The Public Works Committee and the Public Works Act has not been adhered to by the person, the Hon. Mathias Cormann, who throws to our side of the chamber—and also threw to our side of the chamber when we were in government—the need for public accountability, public scrutiny, openness and transparency. He has not done it himself. He has not followed the basic principles of being a minister by following the acts that govern expenditure. He is the person responsible for all of the department spend. It is his department that can grant an exemption. He has not done it. He has not sought exemption for a really large expenditure of public money. He has not followed his own due process.
May I say, in the short time I have remaining, that I have never been to Nauru and I have no great inclination to go to Nauru. What I have seen in submissions and photographs and read in reports shows that the outcomes in terms of the Australian taxpayer spend are not high. In fact, they could be regarded as truly abysmal. We are spending, and continuing to spend according to Mr Pezzullo, another $580 million this year. In all of that—and I do not want to go to the issues of immigration, or stop the boats, or on-water—proper probity and scrutiny by the Senate and the standing committees of the parliament should always be in effect when we spend more than $15 million, if the items are construed under the definitions of the act. I call on the finance minister to follow his own rules and his own guidance to this Senate in previous statements. (Time expired)
Firstly, I want to congratulate Senator Gallacher on so eloquently highlighting the secrecy of this government in bypassing proper scrutiny of the parliament in many areas of government and highlighting the government's lack of accountability and transparency. Why are we here today debating this private senator's bill, the Freedom of Information (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015? When tabling his private senator's bill, Senator Joe Ludwig said in his media release that the reasons he felt this was needed was in terms of holding this government to account and ensuring that the secrecy that they seek to bring over the parliament and their decisions are properly scrutinised. Senator Ludwig said that the Abbott government have jeopardised the balance that Labor has put into the FOI Act and have skewed the FOI Act to favour secrecy, which has led to a lack of transparency in the government. That is why he has introduced this bill to allow, among other things, the public to know exactly why a freedom of information request has been rejected or edited by the department.
This bill is a reasonably straightforward piece of legislation but is one dealing with a critical issue, and that is government transparency. The bill before us seeks to amend the Freedom of Information 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.
The amendments outlined in this bill aim to embolden the balance and openness that Labor has strived to instil in Australia's freedom of information regime. These principles of balance and openness were core to the important reforms to freedom of information that Labor implemented when in government. Labor strongly believes that freedom of information is an essential part of our democracy. Freedom of information is central to government accountability and transparency, because it gives members of the public and media access to information about what the government does and the decisions they make.
Since freedom of information laws were first introduced in Australia by the Whitlam government in the 1970s, Labor has worked to strengthen these laws to improve transparency in government. Labor has long worked to champion the public's right to know. In the last term of government Labor continued this work, making important changes to move to a pro-disclosure model of governance, striking an important balance between the need for confidentiality and the legitimate right of the public to know. Labor's reforms were wide-ranging, impacting on all elements of the freedom of information regime, including access procedures, freedom of information charges, exemption criteria, freedom of information objectives, the procedure for a review of disputed decisions, and publication of information by agencies and freedom of information reporting by agencies.
These reforms made significant strides to enhance the public's statutory rights to documents and information and encourage a culture of political accountability and openness. Striking this balance is important for transparent government, and in coming to government Labor committed to restoring this balance in order to restore trust and integrity within government. However, since winning the election the Abbott government has worked to undermine and jeopardise the balance Labor established in the freedom of information regime. This government is addicted to secrecy—secrecy at the expense of the transparency and integrity that is vital to the operation of our democracy.
That is why my Labor colleague Senator Ludwig has introduced this bill—to move to restore the balance between the need for some confidentiality in governance and the legitimate right of the public to know about the operation of government. Currently, in spite of Labor's significant reforms, freedom of information requests can still be refused, or documents may be edited with minimal justification. This leads to abuses of the system as reasonable requests for information are denied. This bill seeks to address this threat to government transparency. The amendments in his bill seek to support and advance the principles at the very heart of Australia's freedom of information legislation by facilitating more practical use of freedom of information requests and enhancing the principles of accountability and efficiency. This will be achieved by inserting a new section into the act that would require government agencies and ministers to publish the exact wording of each freedom of information request and a statement of reasons for the decisions. This will allow members of the public to see exactly what information has been requested and the reasons it has or has not been provided. This will also assist people seeking similar information and reduce duplication. Making this type of information available also opens up the freedom of information process and decisions to greater scrutiny.
The bill includes important protections of the privacy of applicants, as certain identifying information would be removed for publication. Examples of information that may be removed are personal information and information about the business, commercial, financial or professional affairs of a person. Further, the bill requires information to be removed if the information commissioner determines that it would be unreasonable to publish that information.
Importantly, this bill also provides that where a document is released under freedom of information it must be made readily and easily available to members of the public. This will be achieved by removing the option that an agency or minister may merely publish details on their website of how the information may be obtained. Rather, the bill ensures that the information is available directly from an agency's or minister's website or through a link on the website to another location where the information can be downloaded. These amendments build on Labor legacy of transparent and accountable governance. They enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of our freedom of information scheme and, importantly, will start to pierce the veil of secrecy this government seeks to cloak itself in. It is necessary to take these steps to meet current and future challenges to freedom of information legislation.
We know that those opposite have no interest in supporting and enhancing our freedom of information scheme to address these challenges. In fact, only last year we saw those opposite attack fundamental elements of our freedom of information regime. As part of the 2014-15 budget the Abbott government announced the 'Smaller Government—Privacy and Freedom of Information functions—new arrangements' measure. This measure was nothing more than an attack on freedom of information in Australia, by a government desperate to hide what it is doing. The Abbott government sought to repeal a number of measures that had been introduced by the previous, Labor, government to improve transparency across government by strengthening the freedom of information regime.
Most significantly, those opposite sought to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the positions of Australian Information Commissioner and Freedom of Information Commissioner. Labor had established the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner to provide independent oversight of the freedom of information regime and to champion freedom of information across government. This body was integral not only to managing access to information but also to changing culture in the public services towards a pro-disclosure ethos. However, in seeking to abolish this body those opposite proposed to give oversight of freedom of information to the government's own minister—in this case, Senator Brandis. They also proposed that external merits review of freedom of information decisions would have to be made to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. This had nothing to do with simplification or streamlining, as those opposite claimed, but rather it was about stifling the accessibility of the freedom of information regime. This change would have removed applicants' ability to request that the independent Information Commissioner review a refusal by the government to provide documents under freedom of information. The Abbott government wanted to force anyone wanting an independent review of a government decision to go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, where the filing fee alone is over $800.
When those opposite failed to pass legislation to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the positions of Australian Information Commissioner and Freedom of Information Commissioner, they attempted to starve the organisation of funds. At Senate estimates at the end of last year, it was revealed that, due to lack of funding, both the Australian Information Commission and the Freedom of Information Commission had been forced to work from home. At budget estimates last month, the Information Commissioner confirmed that these arrangements continue. While the budget restored funding to the Office of the Australia Information Commission for a dozen staff, there are only about half what there were before the government launched its attack on the organisation.
But what else can we expect from a government intent on returning Australia to an outdated and flawed system of freedom of information? This is a government that will do whatever it can to avoid scrutiny by the public that elected it. As Senator Gallacher stated in his contribution, it will do whatever it can to avoid the scrutiny of the parliament.
In contrast, Labor are committed to the principles of FOI, whether we are in government or in opposition. That is why we support the amendments in this bill, amendments which seek to provide greater accountability and integrity in our system of democracy. I congratulate Senator Ludwig on introducing this private member's bill. I commend the bill to the Senate.
I too rise to put on the record my remarks around this excellent bill, the Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015, introduced to the Senate by my colleague Senator Joseph Ludwig, from Queensland. This place is certainly the house of the states. While Senator Ludwig is standing up for the people of Queensland, there has been plenty of participation by senators on this side of the chamber from a range of states who understand that, across this nation, we have a community craving some transparency and some accountability around the outrageous performances of this government in many, many areas. A fundamental part of good governance is being offered to the Senate through this bill today. Given that it does deal with transparency and given that it does advance the strength of Labor's belief in the need for access to information as a critical dimension of good governance, it is not surprising that those opposite, sadly, have stood up to oppose it.
This is a bill to make government more transparent. Freedom of information requests are a vital part of enabling people to find out what is going on with their government. It is a basic tenet of what makes our democracy strong. Shining a light on decisions should not hurt government; it should make it strive to be better. I want to repeat that: shining a light on decisions—and that is what freedom of information requests do: allow the scrutiny of decision making by the government to be open and available to members of the public and interested peak bodies that represent members of the public—should not hurt a government. It should constantly be part of the mindfulness of government that, 'Somebody could be looking at what I'm doing.' This whole concept of oversight is a critical part of a healthy democracy.
Amongst other things, this bill will require government agencies and ministers to publish the exact wording of each FOI request that is made. That matters because it will make it a lot clearer to those who are seeking information—and these things can happen quite simultaneously on different sides of the country. Australians might find that they have a particular interest in accessing information about health, around which there has been considerable obfuscation by this government so far. Two independent inquiries, if this bill is passed, will now be able to see the reasons for other FOI decisions. That has to be an improvement in this digital age, when access to information is timely and more possible. If there is any opposition from those opposite, you would have to question why they would want to do that except to make it more difficult for people to scrutinise them. In addition to the exact wording of each FOI request, ministers will be required to provide a statement of reasons from the decision maker as to why an FOI inquiry was rejected or redacted or only partially fulfilled, so that others can see the trail of information seeking that has gone on before they come to the task themselves.
I cannot see the Australian community having an issue with the process of creating a more open and transparent democracy for Australia. There cannot be community opposition to this, but certainly there is opposition from the government. That is because they are different. They are different from most of the Australian people, who believe in fairness, access to information and honesty. They are different from the Labor Party, who definitely believe in these things—and our action legislatively is proof of that. Labor are absolutely committed to the principles of freedom of information whether we are in government or in opposition. In fact, the freedom of information legislation was first proposed to the parliament in 1974—and that happened, not surprisingly, during the Labor government under the leadership of Prime Minister Whitlam. It was a transformative change to say that this is the people's house. This is a parliament that is open. It was a practical governmental action to allow transparency.
In 1983 in the foreword to the first annual report on the FOI Act, the then Labor Attorney-General, Gareth Evans, described the basic purposes of what FOI legislation should do. At that time he said it was there and vital:
He said it was there:
He said that FOI is there:
And he said that freedom of information legislation was vital:
These are principles that most Australians that I speak to absolutely believe in and would uphold. That is why such simple tenets of a basic democratic capacity to participate in your own government and find out what your government knows about you should not be opposed by those opposite. They are either for freedom and democracy or they are against it. And, sadly, we have been seeing too much of this negativity from the government and a shutting down of information through to the citizens of this country.
The Liberal Party, of course, have problems with this because they have shown day after day that they are the party of obfuscation, the party of opacity and the party that thrives by keeping people in the dark and away from the truth as much as possible. Without their smokescreen, they have very, very little cover. The secrecy that shrouds this government is absolutely appalling, and their resistance to this bill is just another way in which they can resist any transparency. For example, there is the secrecy around the $80 billion cuts to health and education and their determination to apply a methodology of distracting the Australian people from what they are actually doing. They are masters at the distractor factor, turning people's eyes, saying: 'Oh, have a look over this. Don't pay attention to that.' But with $80 billion dollars out of health and education in last year's budget and locked in in this year's budget—ultimately you cannot hide and run from things that are that big. But they will try.
This bill we have before us today could simply be described as a procedural bill. I do not think Senator Ludwig would mind me saying that there is very little that is sexy about this bill, and there may not be many people who want to pay attention to the debate of something that seems so dry. But at its heart is a fundamental belief in the right of every Australian to access information about the decision making of their government and the impact of that decision making and record keeping around their own lives as citizens of the nation.
This bill is just good government, but that is exactly why those opposite are so opposed to it—after 650 days of being in government, and not one of them good government. Making engagement easier, making inclusion easier, is not something this government has been interested in. Despite attempts from the minister to assist, sometimes members of the Australian public just cannot walk around Canberra for the leak of the information that they want. Sometimes they have to actually enter the bureaucratic maze of freedom of information requests with no guarantee that their request will result in an answer and, if it does not succeed, they have no way of finding out why. This bill seeks to amend that anomaly.
Currently, requests under the Freedom of Information Act can be refused, or documents may be edited with minimal justification. This leads to abuses of the system by denying reasonable requests for information, and these are a threat to the government because they are a threat to transparency. The amendment before us today will strengthen the existing legislation to deliver on these original core promises which were enshrined within the act, and to which I gave voice earlier when I gave recognition of Gareth Evans' articulation of the reason for this legislation.
The measures in this bill are designed to make government more transparent and fair to the community. The amendment will allow the public to see what requests have been made and why the documents were or were not released. Publishing the reason for decisions would allow for scrutiny of the departmental and ministerial decisions and open the door to further reform to allow review of requests by parties other than the initial applicants. Telling the community why something was not granted, redacted or withheld does not create terror. It does not create crime. It does not create instability. But a government that puts a black bag over information and answers does create a risk to our democracy. These changes will mean applicants seeking similar documents could build on each other's requests, which would also reduce any duplication of requests and save on administrative time in responding to similar requests.
In 2007, Labor made an election commitment to reform the freedom of information legislation to promote pro-disclosure culture. Just 18 months and a change of government later, that culture has all but been destroyed by the Liberal-National Party government. Never before—not in the history of this Federation, I dare say—have we had a more obstinate and arrogant government. In question time after question time and press conference after press conference, the government refuses to answer questions. They turn every matter into a matter of national security, and of course they do not answer questions on national security, which makes it pretty hard to get any information out of this government. Even matters that relate directly to a severe conflict of interest in a minister's office somehow seem to become transformed into a personal staffing matter which they do not comment on, because they then start to describe it as 'an ongoing matter'. And, of course, if they use that technique of putting the word 'operation' in front of something, we know that that is a sacrosanct area where they will never, ever give a response.
The Australian people are awake to the nonsense of the language that this government continues to use. 'Operation Secrecy' is really what they are enacting here. 'Operation Hide-the-Facts'; 'Operation Do-Not-Account-To-The-Australian-People-For-What-You-Are-Doing'—that is the operation that is underway here. 'Operation Rip-Off-The-Health-System'; 'Operation Rip-$30 billion-Out-Of-Education'—they are the operations that are underway by this government. We only have to look to the matter regarding Senator Nash and the involvement of her chief-of-staff who was formerly a lobbyist for a major food company. He apparently lobbied to have the government healthy food rating website removed. This showed a significant breach of ethics and trust. It is just one example among many of the breathtaking arrogance of this government. Its own messed up priorities rank higher than the health of Australians. That is the kind of attitude that we have seen on display. The minister failed to answer questions in this place. She failed to answer questions at the press conference and then used the strategy that works for a while but is really wearing out: the distractor technique—'Have a look over here. Don't notice what I'm doing.'
Australians believe in freedom. They believe in freedom of information, they believe in access to information and they will not be dudded by a government that refuses to give them what they deserve. The government can obfuscate and obviate through question time and through other media communications, but, in the end, documents and emails do not lie. That is why they are fighting so hard against this bill. That is why they do not want it to go through, because Australians will be able to get the evidence, get the facts and get to the sources of information much more efficiently and effectively and will be able to see what is going on. That is why this government does not support this legislation.
This amendment simply requires the government to provide a reason for the things that they do. National security or operational matters do not cut it for protecting a staffer for making a personal political decision and utilising the authority of a minister's office, and never should it. Only yesterday, we saw how far a minister will go to run from an issue of his own making. Senator Brandis, in this place at question time, when questioned about whether a government he is a senior minister of had given money directly to asylum seekers, ducked and weaved with the skill of a feather-weight boxer and blamed every other person but himself or his government for the problem. He is certainly match-fit for avoiding telling the truth, but when it comes to allowing scrutiny this government is absolutely in lockdown. When Senator Brandis ran out of people to blame, he said this was an operational matter and he closed up the box again. He said that it is a no-go zone; the Australian people cannot know. This culture cannot continue. The government cannot get away with hiding from the Australian people and keeping them scared and anxious about a future that is filled with fear, with the government's rhetoric every day.
We live in an information era and people deserve access to the information of government. Labor believes further reform is needed to meet the current and future challenges of freedom of information legislation. That is why this bill will, if it is passed, ensure transparency and accountability is included within the framework of government decisions concerning freedom of information requests. It will allow the public to view the requests that have been made and the reasons why documents were or were not released. It will allow applicants seeking similar documents to build upon previous requests and it will reduce the duplication of requests. These are not unreasonable things for the Australian people in this information age to be able to be confident of. Nonetheless, those opposite disagree. It is vital for the government's survival that Australians have less information about what the government are doing, and that is why they will lock it down and oppose this.
I commend Senator Ludwig for his ongoing commitment over very many years—most notably during his time as Special Minister of State—to open and transparent government. I also commend him on advancing this bill. I close by commending the bill to the Senate.
It gives me great pleasure to rise this morning to speak on the Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015. This bill amends the Freedom of Information Act 1982 to require government agencies and ministers to publish the exact wording of freedom of information requests. The amendments will also require agencies and ministers to publish a statement of reasons concerning the decision to allow or refuse the release of requested documents. The bill has the stated aims of: ensuring transparency and accountability are included within the framework of government decisions concerning freedom of information requests; allowing the public to view requests that have been made and the reasons why documents were or were not released, allowing applicants seeking similar documents to build upon previous requests; and reducing duplication of requests. Furthermore, Senator Ludwig's bill states:
Publishing the reasons for decisions will allow for scrutiny of departmental decisions and open the door to further reform to allow review of requests by parties other than the initial applicant.
Section 11C of the Freedom of Information Act currently requires agencies and ministerial officers to maintain an online disclosure log. The disclosure log must either publish information made available in response to a freedom of information request or provide details of how the public may obtain that information. Senator Ludwig's bill proposes to amend these requirements by removing the option of providing details of how the public may obtain information, requiring the publication of the exact wording of the FOI request and requiring the publication of a statement of reasons concerning the decision to allow or refuse the release of the requested documents. The current disclosure log requirements, together with the information publications scheme, were part of the previous Labor government's package of freedom of information reforms, in 2010. These reforms were intended to reduce the number of freedom of information requests over time, with the Freedom of Information Act providing access to information through agency-driven publication rather than only response to requests for documents. However, as reported in the Hawke freedom of information review, implementation of the information publication scheme and disclosure log requirements have, in many cases, increased freedom of information processing costs, with resources being diverted from other key areas to assist with freedom of information processing.
As well as increasing the costs of freedom of information processing, these initiatives have not resulted in any reduced in the number of freedom of information requests received by agencies and ministers. In fact, since the freedom of information reforms commenced in 2010, the number of freedom of information requests has increased from 23,605 in the year 2010-11 to 28,643 in the year 2013-14.
As mentioned by previous speakers on this side of the chamber, the government does not support this bill. I will go through the various reasons why we will not be supporting the bill. There is going to be a new definition of 'working day'. Item 1 of Senator Ludwig's bill inserts a new definition of 'working day', in the interpretation section of the act, as follows:
working day, in relation to a requirement in a provision of this Act to publish information, means a day that is not:
(a) a Saturday; or
(b) a Sunday; or
(c) a public holiday in the place where the function of publishing the information under the provision is to be performed.
As the term 'working day' is used only in section 11C, it is difficult to see how this will eliminate confusion concerning timeframes for publishing information, as is the suggested intent of the amendment.
Items 2 and 3 of Senator Ludwig's bill, in relation to publication of information and access to documents, will remove the option for an agency or a minister to publish details of how information may be obtained, rather than the information itself. Currently, subsection 11C(3) provides that the information disclosed in the request must be published on the agency or ministerial website by making the information available for downloading from the website, under 11C(3)(a), or by publishing on the website a link to another website from which the information can be downloaded, under 11C(3)(b), or by publishing on the website other details of how the information may be obtained, under 11C(3)(c). Items 2 and 3 of Senator Ludwig's bill amend subsection 11C(3) to remove the option of simply publishing on the website details of how the information may be obtained, rather than the information itself. Senator Ludwig states that this amendment is '… designed to provide the public with easy access to documents released under the FOI Act.'
The current requirement is for information that is released to be published for the public generally on a website. Some agencies publish the documents released on their websites and the FOI requests. What this will do is remove the flexibility, where the information cannot be readily published on a website, of providing details of how the information can be accessed. The current flexibility ensures that there is no impediment for those who are interested in accessing the particular information, while at the same time not imposing an onerous administrative burden on the agency. It may not be straightforward for an agency or a minister to publish some documents on a disclosure law in an accessible format or to convert documents to such formats within 10 working days. This may be an issue, for example, if information has been redacted from a document, where a large document is only available as a hard copy, or in a PDF format. Removing flexibility will impose an administrative burden on agencies and ministerial offices in preparing documents for publication within 10 working days of the information being released. This could create challenges for agencies and ministers in managing an increased freedom of information workload and it could impact on the processing of freedom of information applications.
Item 5 of Senator Ludwig's bill, in relation to publication of requests and reasons, amends the Freedom of Information Act to insert a new provision—a new section 11D. This new section requires agencies or ministers, where access is given to whole document, to publish the freedom of information request itself, and the reasons for the decision, within 10 working days after the person is given access. It requires agencies or ministers, where access is given to an edited document, to publish the freedom of information request itself and the notice that an edited copy has been prepared, and the grounds for deletion, within the 10 working days after notice is given. If a request for the reasons for the decision is made for the refusal to the whole document, the new section requires agencies or ministers to publish the reasons within 10 working days after the reasons are given. Where access is not given to a document at all, the new section requires agencies or ministers to publish the freedom of information request itself within 10 working days after the decision, and the reasons for the decision, within 10 working days after the reasons are provided. Essentially, this provision will require agencies and ministers to publish the exact wording of freedom of information requests.
The new section 11D proposed by Senator Ludwig will also require agencies and ministers to publish a statement of reasons concerning the decision to allow or refuse the release of requested documents. Section 26 of the Freedom of Information Act currently provides for statements of reasons to be given where a decision is made to refuse access. Section 22 of the Freedom of Information Act provides reasons to be given where an edited copy of a document is provided. The difference with the new provision is that a statement of reasons is also required when access is granted in full, and that all statements of reasons, as well as the requests themselves, must now be published within 10 working days. Once again, this new provision will impose a substantive administrative burden on agencies and ministerial officers, which could result in significant processing delays in other aspects of freedom of information processing.
Senator Ludwig states that this measure will facilitate more practical use of freedom of information requests, will reduce duplication of requests and will open the door for further reform by parties other than the initial applicant. It is more likely that publishing reasons for decisions will result in overburdened agencies that are struggling to manage increasingly heavy freedom of information workloads taking shortcuts and adopting published reasons rather than making a decision based on the circumstance of the particular freedom of information request.
This government is committed to being a transparent, accountable and open government. The Freedom of Information Act is an important accountability measure, which facilitates the open and transparent operation of government. Rather than ensuring accountability and transparency, the measures in the bill will compromise the effectiveness of the decision-making processes under the Freedom of Information Act. It is unlikely that the measures in the bill will reduce duplication of requests, as requests cannot be refused where information is publicly available free of charge or where information that would substantially address the subject matter of the request is regularly made available—for example, in annual reports or otherwise. Nor can the request be refused if the request is substantially the same as another freedom of information request that has been made. An applicant does not need to provide a reason for making a freedom of information of request.
This will not reduce duplication of requests. It will not reduce the number of requests. Instead it will impose further unnecessary steps and procedures into existing processes for access to government information under the Freedom of Information Act. This will delay the costs and complexity of freedom of information processing and result in significant processing delays. That is why this government will be opposing the bill of Senator Ludwig.
I am very pleased to be able to take part in this fascinating discussion on freedom of information. I am very disappointed that Senator McGrath was able to finish three minutes early; I was hoping that there would be a little bit more time for him to share his views on this Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015.
I do agree with Senator McGrath on the importance of freedom of information in our government—in any government. In fact, we know that the history of freedom of information shows that a series of successive governments have identified the need to have transparency in decision making, and to allow citizens to engage with their government to ensure that they will understand effectively decisions that are being made and also a access information which is of interest to them. I applaud Senator Ludwig's decision to maintain this discussion in this place, because any piece of legislation must continue to be discussed and reviewed to ensure that it maintains its original purpose. We know that the original purpose of this legislation was to ensure transparency of decision making.
We have heard from previous speakers on this side of the chamber about concerns that have been raised over the last two years about the way that decisions have not been open and transparent under this government. A number of key areas of policy have been shrouded by a process which has maintained secrecy and security as a reason not to ensure that people have access to information, access to data and access to policy background which would make the decisions more transparent and also allow effective knowledge and discussion in the community about the background to policies that have impacted on them and on our community. This is not only in areas that have traditionally been shrouded by this process. I have had the discussion many times about my concerns that—when anything has the cover of ASIO and national security put over it—there is no ability to get further information on those processes. What we have seen is that this has been extended to other areas. Indeed, Senator Ludwig's bill is looking at how we can use existing freedom of information legislation to ensure that there is a public process so that, if decisions have been made, departments, which are actually speaking on behalf of their minister, then have to give a full and detailed explanation about why decisions on FOI have been declined or indeed why they have been approved.
The core element of this is to ensure that there is timeliness. A standard of 10 working days is part of many of the implements of Senator Ludwig's proposed legislation, and that standard is the basis on which this transaction should take place. We know that—because of resources issues, because of workloads and because of the volume of FOI requests that can occur around particular pieces of legislation on policy—there will be times that departments will not be able to meet a standard of 10 working days. That happens now when we do not have such a limit, but we do allow the department to explain to the applicant the reasons for delays, to explain to the applicant what their process is of looking further into the legislation, whilst maintaining this protection that there would be a an expectation that decisions would be made and translated within—(Time expired)