27 June 2011

Governance arrangements in Canberra are to become more transparent, according to the ACT chief minister.  She said on Friday that public access to information will be the default position of her Government.  Changes being introduced… “ will make the ACT Cabinet the most open of any government in Australia.”

The Australian Capital Territory website will promote open government by publishing government background reports, reviews, and submissions made during public consultation, and will give access to material released under the Freedom of Information Act.  This will follow the precedent of Commonwealth agencies which, since May, have been required to publish on a web log the details Freedom of Information requests (within 10 working days of release). Non personal information, after release to the applicant, is now available to everybody.

The website is planned to be operational within 3 months. An earlier development will be the release of a weekly summary of key issues and decisions considered by Cabinet.   The Minister was not clear whether this will relate to all key Cabinet business on the Scandinavian model, or  selectively, as with the New Zealand Prime Minister’s post-Cabinet media conference.

Next month, Ministers  will hold a virtual Cabinet meeting where public queries will be answered on Twitter. This use of technology is seen as symbolic of the government’s commitment to openness..

“Open Government refers to a way of working, and rests on three principles;

  • transparency in process and information
  • participation by citizens in the governing process
  • public collaboration in finding solutions to problems”.

A legislative proposal is to structure a Freedom of Information Act for the ACT more like the New Zealand Official Information Act provisions and not to have a specific exemption for Cabinet papers, as happens in Australian jurisdictions.  Nicola White in her book,  “Free and Frank – Making the Official Information Act 1982 Work Better” has less confidence in the adequacy of the New Zealand approach. She commented that the Official Information Act ” as it works now  is eroding trust in the state sector rather than building it”.