16 July 2013

A year ago the Law Commission released its report on the Official Information Act – the “Right to Know”.  The Government response in February this year poured cold water on most of the proposals. Contrary to the recommendations, Ministers decided that there was no need –

  • for a new Act
  • for a new oversight office
  • to compel agencies into proactive disclosure
  • for additional commercial protection
  • to impose obligations to notify third parties when information is to be released.

Ministers showed little interest in enacting additional measures which the Law Commission believed would strengthen capability to promote greater openness and transparency in government.

One change that was recommended and for a time looked possible, was extending the coverage of the Official Information Act to include the Parliamentary agencies – the Office of the Clerk, the Parliamentary Service, and the Speaker of the House.

In May last year the Australia Information Commissioner issued a determination that Federal Parliamentary agencies – Department of Parliamentary Services, the Department of the House of Representatives and the Department of the Senate – were covered by the Freedom of Information Act.  While welcomed by many, this interpretation was both novel and unexpected.  Few parliamentarians however were supportive. Cross party moves were soon afoot for remedial legislation.

And in fewer than three sitting days last month, both Houses showed little opposition to enacting the Parliamentary Service Amendment (Freedom of Information) Bill – a misnomer that reversed the prospect of greater public scrutiny of parliamentarians’ practices.

Yesterday’s Open and Shut blog records a response from Malcolm Turnbull to a query about the reason for the willingness of the House to exempt itself from FOI in an 11 minute session. His unembellished explanation was that “the exemptions were of longstanding or thought to be “.

One advance in New Zealand, achieved without legislative change, has been the agreement of the Government to the periodic publication of a review of Ministerial conflicts of interest, monitored and audited by the Ombudsmen.