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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1995 Week 9 Hansard (21 November) . . Page.. 2209 ..

Report on Access to Cabinet and other Deliberative Documents

MS FOLLETT (Leader of the Opposition) (3.12): I present Report No. 6 of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts entitled "Access to Cabinet and other Deliberative Documents, the Property of Previous Governments". I move:

That the report be noted.

This inquiry arose out of actions in the Assembly on two occasions this year, in May and August, when a Minister, Mr Humphries, quoted from selected departmental minutes sent to me as the Chief Minister in the previous Government. On both occasions the Minister adverted to departmental briefing minutes tendered to the Government at the time and used that advice to attempt to suggest that by receiving those minutes the Government had adopted the views expressed in them. As the then Chief Minister, I was challenged to provide documentary evidence of the actual deliberations and notations made in respect of those minutes. One of these matters, Mr Speaker, is dealt with quite fully at about page 295 of the Stein report, which has been tabled today, if anyone is interested. It was clear also that the Minister had access to related papers which had been dealt with by my Government.

Following the May incident, when I raised the question of the convention relating to access to the Cabinet documents of a former Government and the Cabinet handbook provisions concerning such access, the Minister acknowledged the importance of the principles involved. The Minister undertook to establish and inform the Assembly of the circumstances in which the document used had then been made available. I regret to say that the Minister has not yet delivered on that undertaking.

These two episodes serve to illustrate what should be a serious concern that, in the interests of good and effective government, the government of the day must have absolute confidence that the record of Cabinet discussions and the basis for Cabinet decisions are confidential to that government. In the light of that concern, the committee decided to undertake the review of the Cabinet handbook provisions which has led to this report. The review has brought to light a number of inconsistencies which require close consideration and rectification by the Government.

In essence, the committee has found, and recommends, that the ambiguity in the handbook needs to be eliminated; that the convention on access needs greater emphasis; that in the particular circumstances of the ACT, where the Ministry is small and there has been an alliance government, there must be provision for access to a previous government's documents by the present leader of the political party which formed a previous government, and there must be provision for access to documents dealt with personally by Ministers of a former coalition government; and that there must be appropriate consultation where access to Cabinet and other deliberative documents of a former government is sought by investigatory bodies and under the Freedom of Information Act.

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