Monday, May 12, 2008

FOI Reform in Australia - The current state of play

To listen to an interview conducted with Adrian Middeldorp, 3rd year B.Media student (University of Adelaide)Program MediaRites Radio Adelaide 101.5 FM Broadcast date: 13 May 2008 3:05pm (approx) on the current state of FOI reform at the Commonwealth level see

I have also written an opinion piece in The Australian on 25 April largely focusing on the NSW Ombudsman review but referring to the Commonwealth reform process.

Peter Timmins blog Open and Shut has been providing the best coverage of this issue.

My principle concern is not that Kevin Rudd will not deliver - his many statements in the last couple of weeks gives him no option. My concern is how he will deliver and the final size and nature of the package.

Prime Minister Rudd and his Special Minister of State John Faulkner have left the Australian Law Reform Commission review into FOI floundering with limited terms of reference granted to it by the previous Attorney-General. Whilst the President of the ALRC has indicated a willingness to exploit "the any other matter" clause in Ruddock's terms of reference clearly the ALRC wants a green light from the new government.

Therefore if the Prime Minister sticks to his timetable (end of 2008 or at the latest the 1st day of sitting in February 2009) it will be without the updated input of the ALRC,and to the best of my knowledge, with no input from anyone outside the ALP or the federal bureaucracy. Some like Michael McKinnon, the FOI Editor for the Seven Network, is hoping that the federal government is simply waiting for the Solomon Report for FOI Reform in Queeensland to be delivered (maybe by early June).

At least in Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has started to put into operation some of the possible changes that could emerge from the Solomon Report. The Queensland Whole-of-Government Response to Solomon's discussion paper indicated that, since Anna Bligh has become Premier, Cabinet documents ( about 500 pages) have been released on at least 3 occasions - 2 in response to FOI requests and 1 without the need for an FOI request.

It would be refreshing if the Rudd Government had shown the same willingness to dip their toes into the waters of greater transparency.

I find it difficult to understand why Senator Faulkner or any representatives of the government appear totally reluctant to engage in any dialogue about the shape,depth and design of any proposed reforms. Whilst the public service and Ministers are key stakeholders so are citizens. A lack of consultation may have had some merit if in the first days of the Rudd Government an FOI amendment bill had hit the floor of parliament and new FOI policy instructions had governed the way the first FOI requests of 2008 had been dealt with.

1 comment:

Rick Snell said...

This is from Johan Lidberg -

"Yes, monitoring of FOI is important, especially after the promised changes/amendments to federal FOI promised by Kevin Rudd have been implemented.

Hopefully this will happen as part of the International Freedom of Information Index. This is a tool that evaluates how well and FOI system delivers on its promises of independent access to information. It allocates a rank between 0.0-10.0 to each assessed system and also includes a qualitative analysis.

However, we can monitor, change and amend FOI laws until you-know-what freezes over and still achieve little. The key to a well functioning FOI regime lies in changing the attitudes towards FOI among the administrators and implementers of the system – the public servants and ministers. Rick Snell has pointed this out before. In my view, this is where the ARTK coalition and the Australian Press Council should focus their efforts.

Can I also point out that the whistleblower issue is often seen as a separate to FOI. In my view they are intricately linked as they are both part of the overall flow of information system. We’ve seen time and again the draconian Section 70 of the Federal Crimes Act (and its equivalents in the states) used to punish brave public servants who have done nothing but speak the truth in the public interest. The WA version of the law was the foundation for the raid on The Sunday Times office in Perth a few weeks ago.

Raiding of news paper offices, fining and imprisonment of reporters for doing their job, FOI systems that are dysfunctional – in an international perspective the flow of and access to information in Australia is an embarrassment. Mind you, in the pilot study trialling the FOI Index, the once FOI leading light USA did not do well either. Since then there has been some encouraging signs in the US, but it does have a lot of catching up to do since the FOI strangling days of post September 11, 2001 started."