Tuesday, 15 March 2016
Answers to Questions on Notice
Question Nos 2876 and 2820
Pursuant to standing order 74(5), I seek an explanation from the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Brandis, as to why question No. 2876, which I placed on notice on 16 December 2015, remains unanswered.
Pursuant to the same standing order, I also seek an explanation from the Minister for the Arts, Senator Fifield, as to why question No. 2820, which I placed on notice on 16 December 2015, remains unanswered.
I thank Senator Wong for the courtesy of advising my office that she would be raising this matter. I am advised that the question was originally asked of the Minister representing the Treasurer on 16 December 2015 and was subsequently transferred to my department. The response is currently being finalised. I think it should be a straightforward matter to conclude it, and I will ensure that Senator Wong has the answer in the next day or two.
Might I add to my response to Senator Wong. Question Nos 2879 and 2876 are in substantially identical terms, hence the confusion. In each case, the questions ask for very detailed data about Freedom of Information Act requests across two years. The questions in their parts and subparts constitute 17 different inquiries in each of those two years. So a very extensive body of work is required to respond to those questions.
As I said earlier, I will pursue the matter with my department but the short answer to your question, Senator Wong, is that the extensiveness and scope of the question is very great. For that reason, you do not have a response yet.
That the Senate take note of the answers given by Senators Brandis and Fifield.
I will do this sequentially if it is convenient to the chamber. In relation to the first question, this is a request in relation to various requests made freedom of information. It was asked in December last year. It was asked—I think this might be the basis of the confusion—of a number of ministries, and the question that I asked Senator Brandis on notice that I wanted to follow up was the one asked of him in his capacity representing the Prime Minister. I note the minister's answer and I say that this is an unacceptable response to the Senate for the Prime Minister to fail to answer this question.
My question went to the government's performance on freedom of information. Freedom of information legislation has been a part of our system of accountability for many years. Changes were debated in this chamber under the previous government. It is an avenue of accountability which plays a critical role in our democracy. Freedom of information is one of the mechanisms which ensure that governments remain accountable, transparent, open and honest with the public. It is also an important mechanism for members of parliament to utilise in scrutinising the actions of executive government. Notwithstanding that—and obviously the opposition has an interest in making sure that avenues of accountability are open to us—I also remind the chamber that this is an important mechanism for ordinary citizens to utilise because, of course, under the Freedom of Information Act any citizen can lodge a request with any government department, agency or minister. Those requests can seek information and documents held by those agencies of executive government. So, as I said, it is an important accountability mechanism.
The starting point of the act is that it grants members of the public a right to have access to information held by the government—that is, their government. Of course, the spirit of the FOI Act and the starting point can be frustrated if government agencies or ministers' offices do not comply with both the letter and the spirit of freedom of information legislation, but it can be frustrated also if the decision making process is delayed, and it can be further frustrated if decision makers refuse to grant access to information on spurious grounds.
One of the measures of a government's commitment to accountability and transparency is its attitude to and its performance when it comes to how it deals with FOI requests. I regret to say that this government has demonstrated a real antagonism towards FOI since coming to government. It is a government that is very fond of secrecy, a government which is often not honest with the Australian public and a government which, we have clearly seen, breaks its election promises. It is a government which does not respect the Senate as a chamber of the parliament but treats it as some sort of block on executive government being able to do whatever it likes whenever it likes. We have seen a lot of that over the last few years—the government's failure to negotiate, its refusal to actually deal with the crossbench in a sensible way. We also saw it highlighted today when the government voted with the Greens to gag and block debate on the legislative program.
The government's lack of respect for the principles of transparency, openness and accountability has, I think, been demonstrated, and that makes it even more important that we scrutinise the government's freedom of information performance. That is in part why I put my questions to the Prime Minister, through Senator Brandis, last year. Those questions go to statistics from the Prime Minister. They ask how many FOI requests have been received by his office and his departme
One would have thought that is not a hard question to answer. I note Senator Brandis's comments that this is a very complex, very big, very lengthy question. Well, departments keep FOI statistics, and, if Senator Brandis went back to his office and he asked the Attorney-General's Department for statistics on FOI requests to date, I suspect it would not take him very long at all to provide them. There is really no valid reason for the Prime Minister being unable to answer this question some three months after it was asked.
My question also went to the issue of delays in responding to a freedom-of-information request. The act requires departments and agencies to acknowledge those requests within 14 days and to make decisions within 30 days. Failing to meet these time lines is a breach of the act. These are statutory obligations. I regret to say that, on occasions, what has been clear from Senate estimates is that sometimes it appears those statutory obligations are seen as less obligatory than they ought to be. My question asked how many FOI requests to the Prime Minister, his office and his department were not acknowledged within the time frame required under the legislation and how many were not decided within the time frame required under the legislation. The question simply is: how many times have you not complied with the law? I would have thought the Prime Minister's department ought to be able to answer that. This goes to whether his department and his office are compliant with the law of the land when it comes to freedom of information. Does the Prime Minister not know? Do Prime Minister and Cabinet not know whether or not they are complying with the law or do they simply not want the information released?
The question also went to other matters. It went to the number of cases where the Prime Minister's office or department sought an extension of time for making decisions, the number of cases which were subject to internal review and the number of decisions which are subject to reviews by the Australian Information Commissioner, the Ombudsman or the AAT. Whilst I note Senator Brandis's assertion that this is a lengthy question, I make this point: these are statistics that departments would keep. What is frankly open to conclude on the basis of the failure to answer is that the Prime Minister and his department are running a go-slow on responding to these questions. It is a little ironic, actually: questions about the government's frustration of people's legal rights under the FOI legislation are met by delay and obfuscation.
I had hoped—to be completely open with the Senate—that the change of Prime Minister from Mr Abbott to Mr Turnbull might see a different approach when it came to freedom of information. Yet regrettably to date that has not been the case, although I would note that I think I am now getting responses from Prime Minister and Cabinet which actually have names at the bottom as opposed to FOI officers, so I suppose that is a good thing. This goes fundamentally to public accountability. We know that the government of the day is accountable to the Australian people through the parliament. Too often we see this government treating this parliament and this Senate with contempt. We see senators asking questions on behalf of the public in question time and we see stonewalling and blustering on the other side. We see senators seeking information through questions in writing, and yet ministers fail to respond within the time limits set by the Senate, and, when they do, frankly, often we see obfuscation, evasion and outright deception. I am often reminded of the former Prime Minister Mr Abbott's promise before the last election: 'We will restore accountability and improve transparency.' I think that was yet another broken promise, and regrettably it appears to be a broken promise that is being continued under Mr Turnbull. I say to the government: do not have a contemptuous approach to accountability. Please, I would like a response on the freedom-of-information statistics that we have requested.
In relation to Senator Fifield's answer, which I also am taking note of, I want to go to this because I find it quite remarkable that it has not been provided to date, given that we are in March. The question I asked was to get more information in relation to a measure in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. The Communications and Arts portfolio had a measure in the MYEFO described as 'efficiencies', with a cut of $52.5 million over four years. I asked where it was coming from. That is a pretty simple question. I know, as someone who has participated in putting together a budget, that this is the sort of information that grounds the costing of any measure. One would have thought that that would not have been a difficult question to answer.
In addition, I asked what, since September 2013, the total cuts were that the government had imposed on cultural and collecting institutions. Whilst I appreciate Senator Fifield's courtesy in how he responded to my request that he explain the delay in answering this question, I do not accept that it should take three months to answer a straightforward question about a measure in the MYEFO. I do not accept that. If you have got $52½ million worth of savings out of the cultural and collecting institutions, you ought to be able to tell the Senate pretty quickly which ones are contributing to that savings measure—where are the cuts coming from? As I said, those are details which would have been part of the decision-making process in the budget, because that is how Finance would have done the costing. Again, page 152 of the MYEFO says:
The Government will achieve savings of $52.5 million over four years from 2015-16 within the Communications and the Arts portfolio, including:
• $36.8 million from cultural and collecting entities within the Arts portfolio, except for the Australia Council. … ;
• $9.6 million through a number of arts programmes, including the cessation of the Book Council of Australia; and
• $6.0 million from the Department of Communications and the Arts by implementing ongoing efficiencies.
As I said, this is not a complicated question. It goes directly to a measure in the MYEFO.
I am told that the Treasurer transferred this question to the Minister for the Arts on 6 January 2016. The question, which was originally asked in December, was transferred by the Treasurer to the Minister for the Arts. I have to say that I did find it somewhat remarkable that the Treasurer had transferred responsibility for this question to the Minister for the Arts. I would have thought that this is a fairly routine question on a budget matter that the Treasurer ought to have been able to answer. I assume that the Minister for the Arts offered these cuts up to the Expenditure Review Committee. If he did, presumably he can tell us pretty quickly which bodies would be affected. He also ought to tell the Senate the extent to which Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull have cut the arts since coming to office in 2013.
Senator Brandis interjecting—
I will take the interjection from the Leader of the Government in the Senate. The assertion is, 'We haven't cut the arts.' Now he is saying to us, 'It is just a reallocation of funding.' It is good, isn’t it. A cut is not a cut if it is reallocating funding. If that is the case, I look forward to the answer which explains that. I know that Senator Fifield has only more recently become the Minister for the Arts, taking over of course, from Senator Brandis, who famously cut funding from the Australia Council.
Senator Brandis interjecting—
Yes, he concedes that, but he makes the point that it was given to his department. Actually, it was given to him. Wasn't this the private slush fund, Senator Brandis, from memory?
Opposition senators interjecting—
It seemed to be the way in which the arts community took it. I will stay on track, Mr Deputy President. The reality is on arts funding, people were justifiably outraged by the cuts to the Australia Council and to the arts budget in the Abbott government's 2015-16 budget. This was on the back of cuts to the arts in the 2014-15 budget, including in my home state of South Australia. As I said, people famously will recall that $104.7 million was cut from the independent Australia Council by Senator Brandis and transferred to his own department. This is the infamous Brandis slush fund—I did not say 'Senator Brandis slush fund', because it is described as the 'infamous Brandis slush fund.' I suppose it is a direct quote.
I would again assert in here that the decision by Senator Brandis and this government to take direct control of arts funding contradicted the principles which were set in place decades ago by the Whitlam government to protect artistic freedom in Australia by keeping arts funding decisions at arm's length from the government of the day. The attacks on the independence of arts funding and the reversion of control to the central decision-making process occurred under the people who most profess to be exponents of individual freedom and freedom of speech. That is the extraordinary thing. The Labor Party thinks that there should be separation from the government of the day in the funding of the arts by giving it to an independent body, but the Liberal Party wants to make sure that it is made by politicians. It wants the decision about artistic expression, about who funds that and how that is funded, to be made by politicians.
One also recalls that Senator Brandis sought to—I think it was in 2013 or it might have been in 2014—amend the Australia Council Act to make funding decisions subject to ministerial direction. He was defeated in time, and that time he found a way to achieve it through the slush fund that I have described.
Senator Brandis interjecting—
Senator Brandis says that I am not correct. If you answer the question, then we can debate the answer at some point. You can talk about arts fund. We are very happy. You could stay here for the taking note, because I suspect that people might want to talk about arts if you want to. In any event, the reality is that we have seen a government that has sought to reduce the grant-making facility of the Australia Council, that has created a slush fund and that has imposed cuts on the sector. And it is now refusing to answer questions, although I know Senator Fifield will provide it soon now that I have raised it again. He has thus far been refusing to answer questions in relation to this.
As a result of the government's decisions, the Australia Council was forced to announce that it would not proceed with the next round of arts funding grants that it scrapped—various programs and suspended funding for some organisations. A number of the programs which were affected were targeting small to medium-sized arts companies and young artists. I regret to say that, when it comes to the arts portfolio, the politically-motivated decisions by Senator Brandis and this government have diminished Australia's creative and cultural life.
We know that this is the same modus operandi as we see from Liberals across the country. One might recall the Newman government took an even harsher approach, a similar political approach, when it was in power, and this most recent attack by the government on the Australia Council comes on top of significant cuts to the arts in last year's budget. It is unsurprising that people are concerned, and it is important that Senator Fifield be clear with the Senate both about the MYEFO measure, but also about the cuts since 2013.
We calculated you have about $100 million worth of cuts in the 2014 budget, including $37 million from the national cultural institutions: $25 million from Screen Australia and a further cut of around $13.2 million from the Australia Council, Screen Australia and the Ministry for the Arts in the 2015 budget, and then of course just under $105 million ripped from the Australia Council to fund Senator Brandis's slush fund. After three years in power, you would have to say that this government has one of the worst track records when it comes to arts policy and arts funding of any modern Australian government, and it is time for Senator Fifield to come clean with the Senate about the extent of the cuts.
Just briefly, I want to correct a couple of claims made by Senator Wong primarily in relation to the question directed to me. She also, in mentioning the question directed to Senator Fifield, at one stage said that Senator Fifield had refused to answer the question. That is what you said. That is not the case. Neither question 2876, which was the question directed to me, nor the question directed to Senator Fifield, has been the subject of a refusal, as I and Senator Fifield explained initially in this debate.
In relation to question 2876, which was put on notice on from 16 December 2015, some three months ago, which includes the summer break, which is not entirely immaterial. Senator Wong would have us believe that all that was being inquired into was a series of numbers in relation to FOI requests, but that, I am sorry to say, is not the truth. The question—which, as I pointed out before, is in 17 parts and subparts across each of two years, 2014 and 2015—makes extensive inquiries which involve the characterisation and classification of FOI requests and the fate of them, including, for example, subpart 2(c)(i), in relation to certain decisions which were the subject of an extension:
… under which section of the Act was the extension granted …
I merely light upon that by way of illustration to make the point that it is not the truth to say that this is nothing more than a request for a number. The exercise being asked is to undertake the classification into different categories of a very large number of FOI requests across two years according to 17 different lines of inquiry and modes of classification. So the suggestion that there is only a number being sought is not the truth.
I said that Senator Wong had said there was a refusal to answer this question. That is not the truth either. As I said earlier on, because of the exhaustive nature of the question and the very large body of work that officers of my department will be—
Senator, I will take your interjection. Senator Lines interjects that these are merely statistics and it is merely a matter of collation. No, Senator Lines. You are obviously not familiar with the question. It is not. It is a question of the classification, into the different several categories identified by the question, of a large number of requests, each of which requires an exercise to be taken by the decision maker. So I merely wish to correct the record to explain (a) that there has not been a refusal to answer; (b) that the suggestion that this is merely asking for a number in relation to statistics that are collected is wrong; and (c) that the large body of work undertaken not by me or my office but by officers of my department has been embarked upon.
Thank you. I appreciate the fact that Minister Fifield gave a response, albeit very short, in regard to the fact that the question had been sent to, I think, Treasury, and then on to him. However, he has completely failed to really give any sort of explanation on the full details of the government's cuts to cultural and collecting institutions. These questions were originally asked, as Senator Wong indicated, on 16 December 2015 by Senator Wong and then, on notice, were transferred from the Minister representing the Treasurer to the Minister for the Arts on 6 January 2016. We are now well into March, and I think that the Senate now deserves explanations in regard to these cuts.
This government should be ashamed of its additional $52.5 million cuts contained in MYEFO to Australia's cultural and collecting institutions, and these cuts were delivered on top of already savage cuts in previous budgets. This is a government that has shown not only a disdain for Australian arts and Australian culture but an outright hostility to it. The Abbott and Turnbull government want to attack Australian culture, and for the life of me I cannot see why. Those opposite should celebrate the cultural worth of our national institutions, the talent of our artists and the importance of our history.
We are all aware in this place of the disastrous $104.7 million cuts to the Australia Council to create, as Senator Wong referred to it, the Brandis personal slush fund. As we remember, it drew universal condemnation from the arts industry and the broader community and led to thousands—literally thousands—of submissions to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee into arts budget cuts. I have never before seen such a strong response to a Senate inquiry, and it highlights just how wrong, how thoughtless and how misguided this government's cuts to arts and culture are.
The arts community breathed a collective sigh of relief when Senator Brandis was dumped from the Arts portfolio, and there was general feeling in the arts community that things could only get better under a new minister. Unfortunately, that confidence was completely misplaced. Things not only have not improved but in fact have become worse under Minister Fifield, as the MYEFO shows. The government said in the MYEFO papers:
The Government will achieve savings of $52.5 million over four years from 2015-16 within the Communications and the Arts portfolio, including:
and I will come back to that later—
Particularly targeted were the Canberra based institutions, especially the National Library, which faces about a $6 million cut, the National Museum of Australia, facing a $5 million cut, and the National Gallery, facing a $4 million cut, as well as smaller cuts to the National Portrait Gallery, the National Film and Sound Archive and the Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House. These are institutions that Australians are proud of. They are world-leading institutions that preserve and display our cultural heritage, and they are vital for research. They are vital also to telling Australians who we are as a people. I, for one, am utterly astounded that the Turnbull government wants to destroy these institutions and stop Australians hearing the stories of Australia.
The National Gallery will lose, as a result of the cuts, $4 million over the next 3½ years. Yesterday, being a public holiday here in Canberra and in Tasmania, I visited the Tom Roberts exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. The NGA was packed with Australians wanting to experience the works of this fine Australian artist. Through the works of Tom Roberts, contemporary Australians were gaining an understanding of what Australian life was like at the turn of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th.
While looking at Tom Roberts's incredible depiction of the industry which produced the wealth of Australia—the wool trade—in Shearing the Rams, I could not help but wonder whether those around me who were viewing the paintings knew just how much the government had cut from the National Gallery and how it is putting in jeopardy the ability of our major cultural institutions to produce exhibits like this one. I am pretty sure that those in the gallery would have been horrified had they known about the cuts and about the failure of the government to give a detailed answer to this question on notice, months after it was asked.
We did receive some answers in Senate budget estimates in February regarding changes to the budgets of the cultural institutions. It looks like the six flagship institutions in Canberra—the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum, the Museum of Australian Democracy, the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Library—have been forced to absorb the massive cuts, starting with more than $3 million in this financial year. This represents around $20 million in cuts just to these institutions. Australians love their national cultural institutions and, as I said, are proud of them. But this Prime Minister, who pretends to be a friend of the arts community, should be ashamed of the outcome of these cuts.
Canberra is the home to several national institutions and proudly plays the role as custodian of a great deal of our national cultural history. The boards and staff of these institutions now have no alternative but to look at job losses, reducing programs and turning to private supporters as a way of ensuring they can continue their service to the Australian community. Once again, the government sought to hide scrutiny of these cuts by announcing them—when was it?—just before Christmas last year.
I would just like to take a moment to say what fine work the staff at these institutions do and how disappointing it is that the government cannot share their passion for preserving and promoting Australia's cultural heritage. It is not feasible that this $20 million in cuts can be absorbed without impacting on services, forcing the institutions to consider reducing programs and having to beg private donors for money. It is quite clear that Senator Fifield is still reading from the script handed down by the Abbott government, which had no respect for the arts in Australia; absolutely nothing appears to have changed. Senator Fifield and Mr Turnbull have failed the arts sector to a greater degree than even Mr Abbott and Senator Brandis did. And that was quite large. Senator Fifield and Mr Turnbull have seen the devastation caused by the cuts by Mr Abbott and Senator Brandis and yet instead of reversing them they have cut harder and deeper, with full knowledge of the impact.
The National Library is particularly impacted by the Turnbull government's shameful multimillion dollar cuts to the Australian flagship cultural institutions, with key services and personnel facing the axe. It will lose $1.485 million in 2015-16, $1.490 million in 2016-17, $1.495 million in 2017-18, and $1.499 million in 2018-19 ongoing. I find it particularly galling that the National Library will need to find savings of almost $1.5 million in just the last six months of the 2015-16 financial year. It has been reported that the nation's book repository will lose 22—22!—full-time equivalent staff by the end of the next financial year. The key services affected include public exhibitions; the collection of international subscriptions, including Asian language text; the vital task of digitisation of its massive collections—necessary so that publications can be kept safe for future generations; and Trove, a fantastic searchable online database of Australian text, which will stop collecting content from museums and universities until it receives more funding. National Library Director-General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, said the $4.4 million cut that the institution was forced to absorb over the next two financial years would have a grave impact.
The National Library is an institution which keeps all publications released in Australia. It is one of our most vital cultural institutions. Not only does it serve the purpose of collecting text, it also makes reams of information easily accessible for academics, students, researchers and everyday Australians interested in their history. It is no less than the repository of our collective identity as a society. One of the things I am particularly concerned about with the cuts to the National Library is the future of Trove. For those who do not know, Trove is an online resource of the National Library of Australia, launched in 2010. The National Library of Australia developed Trove into a world-class digital collection of resources from all around Australia. It is a world leader and it is admired as best practice by galleries and libraries, even in the United States and Europe.
Trove's content, much of which is digital, comes from more than 1,000 libraries around Australia, as well as other cultural and educational institutions and international collections with relevance to Australia. It is one of the largest digital cultural collections in the world, with some 471 million items and more than 20 million unique users every year. Trove takes users straight to the source, not just to a list of websites, and allows them to search across pictures, unpublished manuscripts, books, oral histories, music, videos, research papers, diaries, letters, maps, archived websites and Australian newspapers from 1803 to 1954. I know just how useful a resource it is for researchers, writers, family historians, academics and students. It is so useful that 70,000 people every day are searching for information to help us better understand, as individuals and as a nation, our past and our present. In particular, I know that many University of Tasmania students use Trove extensively as part of their research. I am horrified that access to these resources could be affected into the future.
The Turnbull government's latest funding cuts to the National Library mean that the library can no longer maintain this innovative and valuable research resource. Among other cuts to the Library's services, the Library has announced that it will cease aggregating content in Trove from organisations such as museums and universities unless it is fully funded. Contributing organisations, particularly smaller historical and scientific bodies facing budgetary pressures of their own, are highly unlikely to be able to fund Trove. This would be a disaster for future researchers trying to look back to today, or for documents from our past that may be decayed, destroyed or lost before being digitised. This means the destruction of Trove as a vital and current source of information for researchers in almost every field of human endeavour that you can imagine. Researchers in the sciences, humanities, education, health, manufacturing, business, services and technology all use Trove.
The Turnbull government and the Prime Minister say they believe in innovation and creativity but they allow these cuts to take place. This all comes from the government that produced a statement on innovation that made no mention of artistic innovation and creativity. The Australian people deserve a government that takes its cultural heritage seriously and acts in the best interests of our history, rather than a government that does not particularly care.
Senate Estimates was told that the National Museum is facing cuts of $4.9 million over the next four years. While they will not lose staff immediately, staff are being redeployed to 'capital projects', which will only last a certain time. Estimates was also told that the National Portrait Gallery is being asked to find savings of $173,000 in the remainder of this financial year and very nearly $400,000 in the following three financial years, ongoing. Mr Trumble from the Museum told the estimates committee that they would find a range of savings, including but not limited to 'cutting pretty much everything'.
The cut this financial year for the Australian National Maritime Museum is $333,000 and next financial year it will be $769,000 from a budget of around $21 million a year. The Australian National Maritime Museum is Australia's national centre for maritime collections, exhibitions, research and archaeology. The museum welcomes over 520,000 visitors annually, including families and interstate and international tourists. The museum presents a changing program of stimulating exhibitions and events to share Australia's maritime history and connect the stories, objects, people and places that are part of our country's narrative. Given Australia's history as an island continent, I am extremely disappointed once again that the government is cutting another important cultural institution.
Also included in the MYEFO cuts was $8 million of funding ripped by Senator Brandis away from the Australia Council for a new book council. The whole situation with the book council has been a joke from the very beginning. The government has now abolished that body, which was never fully established and never actually met, but has not returned the funding to the Australia Council, and I doubt at this stage that it ever will. It would be a farcical situation if it were not such a terrible attack on Australia's artists. They have ripped $8 million away from an agency to create a new book council, which did not ever get up and running, but will not return the unspent money to the agency. This decision has locked in an $8 million cut to the arts with absolutely no benefit to the arts at all.
Cuts have also been made to the Museum of Australian Democracy. We know from budget estimates that the Museum of Australian Democracy is losing $207,000 this financial year, $476,000 next year and then $479,000 and $482,000. The Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House is a fantastic resource, particularly for the tens of thousands of school students that visit Canberra each year. The museum have said, 'It means that our exhibitions will run for longer, we will have fewer exhibitions happening and we will do one less significant event each year.' This is a truly disappointing outcome for such a fantastic education resource.
Let us not forget that the government has also made drastic cuts to Screen Australia. The budget update reveals that the Turnbull government will cut $10.4 million from Screen Australia to help fund its spending on two Ridley Scott films—Alien: Covenant and Thor: Ragnarok. We certainly want more major Hollywood blockbusters made here, but not at the expense of Australian films. MYEFO says that the government will provide $47.3 million over two years from 2016-17 for the two films but when the foreign minister, Ms Bishop, announced $47.3 million of grants for Hollywood blockbusters in October she did not admit that this would come at the expense of Australian filmmakers.
Labor condemns the government's cut to Screen Australia—the third in only 18 months. The continued attacks on the country's main film and television funding agency mean its annual allocation will fall from $100.8 million two years ago to $82.2 million next financial year. Mr Turnbull has cut Screen Australia even further than Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey could bring themselves to. Screen Australia provides critical support to Australian filmmakers to tell Australian stories in Australian voices. Many of our producers, directors, actors and creative professionals rely on its help. Mr Turnbull should be working to help the Australian film industry grow, not trying to shut it down.
I have spoken in this place before about the effects that the government's cuts will have on the screen resource organisation Wide Angle Tasmania. I know my colleague here Senator Polley is interested in this as well. I am still angry that Wide Angle Tasmania, a professional, active and engaged organisation, will be closing its doors on 30 June 2016 because of this government's cuts to Screen Australia. Wide Angle Tasmania is the heart of the screen industry in Tasmania and provides training opportunities, equipment hire and extensive networking opportunities. It is utterly unthinkable that Wide Angle Tasmania loses its $80,000 grant, yet Ridley Scott will get $47.3 million for Alien: Covenant and Thor. Couldn't this government have given him $47.2 million and reserved enough for Wide Angle Tasmania to keep its doors open? This government should be ashamed of such a terrible outcome for the Tasmanian screen industry caused by this government's poor judgement and terrible priorities.
While we are talking about film, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia says the impact of the MYEFO adjustment to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia's budget will be a $387,000 reduction this current financial year, an $890,000 reduction in 2016-17, an $897,000 reduction in 2017-18 and, finally, a $905,000 reduction in 2018-19.
Australia has a strong history in film and sound—well, we did have until this government came to bear. In fact, the first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was made in Australia in 1906. The national audiovisual collection holds more than 2.16 million works, and the collection includes films, television and radio programs, videos, audio tapes, records, compact discs, phonograph cylinders and wire recordings. Once again, due to these short-sighted cuts, the ability of the archive to promote and preserve Australian film and sound works has been put at risk.
The government like to talk big on the arts. Mr Turnbull is the first to attend big openings like the opening of the Tom Roberts exhibition at the NGA, but, when it comes to actually funding these institutions properly, he is completely missing in action. The government care so little for the arts that, months after this question on cuts to the cultural institutions was asked, they have been unwilling to update this chamber with the required answers. They have also failed— (Time expired)
Thank you, Deputy President. Firstly, I would like to say that, in the response that Senator Brandis gave during his second contribution, he did say that the information was—these are my words—complex and that sufficient time was required to be able to respond to all of the questions asked. In a perfect world, you could agree with that contention by Senator Brandis. However, Senator Brandis presides over the worst administration of FOI that this country has ever seen. Put in that context, it is simply unsustainable that Senator Brandis can hold that point of view.
This government wants to dismantle the FOI regime that has been in place for many years. It has legislation sitting on the Notice Paper to do just that. This government does not support the FOI regime we have now, let alone the previous FOI regime. The coalition government is and continues to be unhelpful when it comes to FOI requests. That is clearly what has prompted Senator Penny Wong to ask for the information that has been asked for in question No. 2876, because it will demonstrate, if the government ever deigns to answer it, how this government treats FOI in this country.
The information that has been requested has been broken down and is to be broken down by both year—that is, 2014 and 2015—and how many requests were received. In truth, these are simple requests that the department should have the statistics for. They should keep those statistics on the web, and they should make them freely available for the public to see—of course de-identified if there should be any personal information there. If they had such a regime in place, it would be easy for senators to look at the type of material that is being sought and the number. For argument's sake, one of the requests is: how many requests were not acknowledged within the statutory time frame of 14 days as required by section 15 of the act? These are simple issues where the department themselves should maintain a relevant log so that they can provide an answer about where they have failed to meet section 15 requirements.
For how many requests was notice of a decision not provided to the applicant within the statutory time frame of 30 days as required by section 15? Again, this is a simple log request. This should be logged. They should have it as a KPI for the department and be able to advise through their website when they do not meet the requirements of section 15 of the act. And, of course, should extensions be granted, this information—if they truly did embrace FOI—would be available.
But, quite frankly, this government does not embrace FOI in any way, shape or form, which prompted me, in fact, to introduce a private senator's bill to encourage this government to embrace FOI, freedom of information, more fully than it currently has. The bill that I sought to introduce would go a long way—if the government agreed to it in the first place—to meet the requirements that are now being sought by Senator Wong. The FOI bill that I put forward would insert section 11D into the Freedom of Information Act 1982 to require government agencies and ministers to publish the exact wording of each FOI request made and a statement of reasons from the decision maker.
This measure is designed to make governments more transparent. It would allow the public to see what requests have been made and why documents were or were not released. It would mean that applicants seeking similar documents could build on each other's requests, which would also reduce any duplication of requests. And, of course, publishing the reasons for decisions would allow for scrutiny of departmental decisions and open the door to further reform to allow review of requests to parties other than the initial applicant.
The government does not support this measure. Why? I come back to my first submission in this opportunity to speak about question on notice No. 2876. This government has not embraced and does not want to embrace freedom of information at all. You only have to look at the coalition's history on FOI to consider how poor it has been. The bill that I sought to introduce, the Freedom of Information Amendment (Requests and Reasons) Bill 2015, did seek to amend the Freedom of Information Act, as I said, to require government agencies to publish those requests.
But if you look at Labor's approach, since the Australian parliament first considered introducing freedom of information legislation in the 1970s, Labor has worked hard to strengthen these laws to improve transparency in government and to champion the right of the public to know. In 2007, Labor made an election commitment to reform freedom of information legislation to promote a pro-disclosure culture. Senators on this side of the chamber recognise that freedom of information is essential to Australian democracy. It is the right of the Australian public to know what their elected representatives are doing in their name.
Mr Turnbull and Senator Brandis lead a government shrouded in secrecy that has sought to hide what it is doing from the Australian public. The non-answer to question on notice to 2876 again makes the simple point that this government does not have a pro-disclosure culture, does not want light shone on its workings. We on this side of the chamber support a pro-disclosure culture. The government will stop at nothing to avoid scrutiny by the people that placed their trust in its hands.
Again in 2007, Labor in opposition made commitments to: revise the FOI Act to promote a culture of disclosure and transparency, appoint a FOI commissioner, rationalise the exception provisions, publish guidelines with the overriding principle that information is withheld only when to do so is in the public interest, and review FOI and the charges to ensure that they are compatible with the objectives of disclosure and transparency. And of course in government, Labor followed through these commitments and introduced wide-ranging reform in the Freedom of Information (Removal of Conclusive Certificates and Other Measures) Act in 2009, the Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Act 2010 and the Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010. They were reforms to the FOI Act that made it easier for applicants to request information and to seek review of decisions.
Among the first of those changes was to remove the availability of conclusive certificates as a device for preventing full merits review of FOI decisions, to refuse access to documents. This was during a period when the Howard government again refused to provide FOI requests any information. It continued what this government is continuing today—to embrace a non-disclosure culture, to consider secrecy is paramount. The reforms that Labor introduced were about tearing down that wall of secrecy that the Howard government had put in place. What this government is now doing is rebuilding that wall brick by brick to ensure that it can hide behind the legislation, hide behind non-answers to questions, hide behind a wall of secrecy.
However, the reformed FOI implemented a presumption of openness and maximum disclosure—that is, while protecting national security and while ensuring personal private information is kept private. But what Labor wanted to do was to ensure that we had an open and transparent government to ensure access to information unless there is an overriding reason why it should not be released. So it was not a position where Labor was advocating wholesale release. Labor ensured that there would be an overriding ability of government to keep matters secret that needed to be kept secret or that needed to be withheld for good reason.
Labor established the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the two statutory positions of the Australian Information Commissioner and the FOI Commissioner to provide independent oversight and review of the FOI regime. The reforms encourage pro-active publication of information under the information publication scheme and this requires agencies and ministers to list information released in response to an FOI request in an online disclosure log subject to reasonable exceptions including the protection of an individual's privacy. All of this is about ensuring that the Public Service and the ministers implementing the will of the people with their warrant would still ensure that it was done in a way that would allow the public to understand and follow what they were doing. The reforms encouraged pro-active publication of information. What this government has done since coming to office is wind all that down. The answer to question on notice 2876 is simply another example of a government that does not want scrutiny.
The 2010 reforms by Labor made it easier and cheaper for requests to be made by simplifying the requests procedure, by abolishing application fees and charges for requests of personal information, and by putting the subtle pressure on agencies to observe request processing time limits. All of this was designed to encourage and slowly move to a pro-disclosure culture. The ambit of the FOI Act was extended to documents held by a contracted service provider delivering services to the public on behalf of the agency. It also made government archival records outside of the FOI Act available for open access progressively sooner.
Finally, the reforms strengthen the review and complaint process by allowing individuals to request the Information Commission to review decisions made under the FOI Act. This encourages agencies and ministers to make sound and justifiable decisions in the first instance. These reforms were implemented with the purpose of revitalising the FOI Act so that it delivered on the important objects of increasing participation in and the accountability of government because, in context, that was after a very long period of Howard administration that had ensured secrecy and the non-disclosure culture within the bureaucracy. What we now have is a government that is seeking to bring back all of that non-disclosure culture of secrecy surrounding the administration.
They are infecting the bureaucracy with that same culture, because they do not want the bureaucracy to be pro-disclosure and they want the bureaucracy not to err on the side of positive release. They want the bureaucracy to maintain the secrecy of government, even when it flies in the face of common sense and where you can have open and transparent government. You do not need the badge of national security to protect it. If it can be protected and it should be protected because of national security or some other reasonable reason, then it can be.
The reforms in the new bill that I introduced would have the key purpose of ensuring that transparency and accountability are included within the framework of government decision making concerning freedom-of-information requests. It would allow the public to view requests that have been made and the reasons why documents were or were not released, allowing applicants seeking similar documents, for example, to build on the requests to garner further information on a particular topic and to reduce the duplication.
One of the complaints made by this government is that we make too many requests for information and that many of them are duplicate. Each senator is asking, and it is not surprising, similar questions about information that this government holds. If they had a pro-disclosure culture in the first instance—if they published the requests—then in fact they could reduce the duplication themselves. But that is not their purpose. Their purpose of complaint about a duplication is to stymie requests, to block requests and not to provide information.
Under the current framework, requests made under the FOI Act can be refused or documents may be edited with virtually no justification from government agencies or ministers. This does pose a clear threat to the core tenets of transparency and accountability within government decision making. What this government is doing more predominantly is simply not answering questions, or providing answers to questions very late or very close to the next round of estimates so that there is no ability to have time to absorb and read them and find new questions or new parts to follow, given the paucity of information that sometimes comes out of those answers in any event.
This private senators' bill that I sought to progress would ensure that FOI requests and reasons for decisions are made accessible to the public without charge. The result would be reduced duplication of requests, freeing up precious administrative resources. This government does not want that. It argues, broadly, that answering questions is resource intensive. There are many simple steps that the government could take to reduce that by publishing them, putting them online or using online logs. Much of the request that Senator Wong is seeking under 2876 could be dealt with in such a way that any reasonable government that embraces FOI, that embraces transparency and that embraces openness would already have information online and available for the public to use.
But it is not surprising that this government does not want to answer the question, and answers the question in such a way that there are many questions that will take many hours of work to bring the information together; it is ultimately complex. These are the same arguments that the Howard era progressed as well. It is a sad refrain about FOI coming from this government.
Given the government's record, it came as no surprise when they introduced a bill last year to abolish the OAIC, removing the role of oversight from the independent Information Commissioner and giving it to the government's own minister, Senator Brandis. The bill is yet to be debated in the Senate. However, the estimates last year revealed that the government had already taken it upon itself to close the Canberra office of the OAIC in December 2014, leaving the former Information Commissioner and the former FOI Commissioner to work from home. This is the style and type of government and how it addresses FOI more broadly. It does not want scrutiny, it does not want transparency. What that means is that the remaining office of the OAIC has been sitting in limbo since the introduction of the bill, discharging only privacy regulatory functions. This highlights the problem that this government has.
It does not want to answer questions on notice. There are many questions on notice that have not been answered within the relevant statutory time frame because this government continues to embrace secrecy and does not want transparency and accountability. The most devastating aspect of the bill that the government seeks to introduce will abolish the opportunity that members of the public currently have to request the independent Information Commissioner to review a refusal by government agencies or ministers to provide documents under the FOI Act. What this government wants to do is simply have a minister get up in this chamber and say, 'It's a very complex question that you have asked, Senator Wong, and it will take forever for us to be able to collate the information, put it together and provide it to you. It will be expensive. It will be difficult to do, but we'll try our hardest at some point to be able to do that.' That is what this government wants to be able to respond with to every question which is probing, which is seeking to provide some transparency and scrutiny of this government's operation— Time expired)
Question agreed to.