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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1998 Week 1 Hansard (29 April) . . Page.. 112 ..

MR OSBORNE (continuing):

I have come to believe firmly that information collected and held by the ACT Government is a community resource. Those who collect it do not do so for their own benefit; rather, they are only trustees of that information for the people of Canberra. Unfortunately, that is not always the attitude taken by the government of the day and its bureaucracy.

Having a complex set of FOI laws is an asset for a government which wishes to avoid a high level of public scrutiny. Traditionally, around the world, FOI law starts out being very simple, and then is gradually made more complicated as successive governments bring forward amendments to suit themselves. I understand that this has certainly been the case in this country. A legal right of access to government-held information was established in Australia only about 15 years ago, with the first comprehensive review of the Commonwealth Act being undertaken two years ago. As an Act which provides easy access to a wide range of government information, our present ACT FOI Act is a dismal failure. It is full of provisions which more readily apply to the affairs of a nation and a range of creative exemptions, including the favoured catch-all phrase that releasing a document would "not be in the public interest". Clearly, the time for reforming the Act was well overdue. The approach that I have taken to this task has not been one of "slash and burn"; rather, I have sought to find a sensible balance between keeping essential government-held information confidential and allowing easy access to the rest.

Over the past few years, the Attorney-General, Mr Humphries, has introduced two significant reforms in the everyday application of the Act - the first being to close down the central FOI office in Civic and to decentralise the whole FOI process to being handled completely within an individual government department or agency itself; and the second being the abolition of fees for personal documents and a reduction of other fees in general. I consider that both of these moves were a step in the right direction. However, as the Government itself freely admits, these two changes did not equate to a comprehensive review of the everyday application of the Act.

During 1995, the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Administrative Review Council conducted such a review and, in 1996, tabled their joint report in Federal Parliament. The commission and council recommended a wide range of changes to freedom of information law and policy in general "to give full effect to the Australian people's right of access to government-held information". These recommendations included making the application process easier to use by both the public and the government agencies concerned; reducing the cost of requests; rationalising exemptions so that they applied only to information for which there was an overriding public interest in withholding it; changing the objects of the Act to promote an attitude of pro-disclosure; the power of Ministers to veto disclosure should be reduced; and increasing the awareness on both sides that members of the public have a legal right of access to government-held information.

All of these recommendations, along with a number of others, I have sought to include in this Bill. The president of the commission, Alan Rose, said at the time of tabling the report that "the culture of secrecy that still pervades much of the Australian public sector must be dismantled if our government is to become truly transparent and accountable". In other words, there are still too many secrets without there being a good reason.

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