GREENS BILL: Freedom of Information Bill passes Upper House

Today, Mark summed up debate and brought his Greens FOI Bill to a vote. The Bill was passed by majority support in the Upper House.

Freedom of Information (Miscellaneous) Bill 2018

Second Reading

I will sum up the debate. I thank the Hon. Connie Bonaros and the Hon. Kyam Maher for their support. I will also put on the record that I have been in continuous discussion with the Attorney-General and her staff. I am aware that the government is not supporting the bill at this stage. I accept that it has a tougher passage in another place, but it may well have an easier passage tonight.

Other members have, I think, fairly well summarised the passage of this bill. The one thing that I would emphasise is that I resisted the temptation in this bill to put any of my own agenda. This bill was entirely the product of the 2014 Ombudsman's audit of public sector agencies and how they handled freedom of information. We know from the audit all those years ago that most agencies were not following the law, that agencies had developed a culture of secrecy and ministers were illegally and unreasonably interfering in the assessment of freedom of information applications.

As a result, I packaged all of the Ombudsman's legislative recommendations, put them in a bill and, as other members have said, it is now the third time I have introduced it into parliament. In conversations with both the Attorney-General and the Ombudsman since then, it has become apparent that there is now an appetite for a complete review of the Freedom of Information Act. Let me say that I fully support that approach. We absolutely do need to review the act, but that does not mean that reform is a worthless exercise.

When the Ombudsman wrote to me some time ago—and I am not sure about others—he said that his preference was to do a whole rewrite of the act. I wrote back to the Ombudsman and, in part, basically my letter to him stated:

My main concern is that by pushing all reform back until 2019 (at the earliest) we are missing the opportunity for a number of simple 'no regrets' reforms that could be instituted now and improve the operation of the FOI system pending a full review.

If you think any of the reforms in the current Bill fit that description, it is an easy enough matter to put them up as stand-alone amendments. I will be guided by you, but if you think this is worth pursuing, I would be happy to meet to discuss this further. I believe the Attorney's office would be willing to work with us.

That was my approach to the Ombudsman. I met with the Ombudsman, and he told me that he had had another look at it and thought that there were some no-regrets options—some low-hanging fruit, if you like—some things that we could easily and simply fix up now that did not stand in the way of a comprehensive review.

He nominated three areas, the first being the more comprehensive definition of what public interest factors need to be taken into account in assessing freedom of information applications. The second was to put in a prohibition against improper or undue influence on those freedom of information officers who are tasked with assessing applications. Thirdly, he pointed out some anomalies, if you like, where an agency says they have looked really hard but they cannot find something or they pretend that a document does not exist, to make sure that decisions like that are reviewable. There were three things that he thought were effectively no-regrets options.

As wedded as I was to the original bill, I have swallowed hard and I have taken the red pen to the majority of the bill. Hence, people will have before them a series of amendments in my name with the words 'the clause will be opposed', 'the clause will be opposed'. It is not as if I have had a change of heart and think that what the Ombudsman said back in 2014 is now no longer relevant. I still believe all those reforms were worthwhile, but in the interest of focusing on the low-hanging fruit, I have deleted probably 80 per cent of the bill and I have confined the bill to those matters that are left.

I am delighted that we now have the Labor Party supporting the bill. People have suggested to me that the major political parties' views on these matters can change according to whether they are in government or in opposition. I will leave that for others to decide, but I certainly think this is something that we can do now. There will be no regrets because I expect I will not be the only person in this chamber who is lodging freedom of information applications before we see the government bill and before the government bill passes through both houses of parliament. That could be six months away or it could be much longer away.

I think these reforms are worth supporting now, and I am glad we have the numbers. If people really want to go through the detail of every clause in committee, of course I am willing to do that, otherwise I hope the bill has speedy passage through all of its stages today. I look forward to it reaching the lower house and to the government supporting it there as well.

Third Reading 

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL (17:42): I move:

That this bill be now read a third time.

Bill read a third time and passed.

For more information see a copy of the Bill