Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1998 Week 1 Hansard (29 April) . . Page.. 114 ..
MR OSBORNE (continuing):
On the face of it, I consider that this section of the Bill passes Mr Humphries's test for a good government. There are eight categories of documents for public interest exemptions, with these exemptions being valid only for a period of up to 12 months. After this period of time, the restriction would be lifted and access could be given. I have included this provision, as the informal practice of the past tends to have successive governments interpreting "what is in the public interest" to mean "what is in the government's interest". Establishing a sunset clause for this category of exemptions will prevent an intentional hazing of the boundaries of where the public interest lies.
Mr Speaker, I make no apology for attempting to deliberately establish in this legislation that the public interest lies in the disclosure of publicly held information. New sections have been added to the Act which clearly set out a person's right of access to personal information on them held by the Government, including access to medical records. A number of necessary safeguards have been included where that information relates to such things as workplace evaluation material and documents of a medical or psychiatric nature where access to them will prejudice the wellbeing or mental health of the applicant.
Other minor reforms include changes to the calculation of fees. Deposits on account would be required only for charges estimated to be over $250, and exemptions from paying fees would be provided for members of this Assembly. At present, fee exemptions exist for members if they can prove that their application is in the public interest. However, I consider that members should be given the benefit of the doubt that their work is automatically in the public interest. That is why we have provided for that exemption. The rest of the Bill is basically translating the current Act from the legal garbage into plain English, and in this case the drafter has done a good job.
I guess that my biggest disappointment with the Bill is that, while it has taken nearly two years to get to this stage, a parliamentary drafter really worked on it full time last year for only about 41/2 days. The result, however, I believe, is good, and I am grateful for the effort of that drafter, Mr James Graham, from the Parliamentary Counsel's Office. Mr Speaker, I firmly believe that freedom of information is not about keeping secrets. Rather, it should assist in the promotion of, and participation in, informed decision-making by the community.
The sensitivity of a particular issue to the government of the day ought not to be the reason for denying access to material that is critical to that level of participation. Where a legal right for members of the public exists on any issue, the Government's responsibility is to protect that right at great cost. If Mr Humphries is to be believed and the true test of a good government is whether or not its record is able to be scrutinised, I believe that this Bill delivers the level of scrutiny that he desired while in opposition. Over the last couple of years there has been a growing debate regarding changes to the style of government in the Territory to one that is more inclusive of the elected members. I believe that the changes outlined in this Bill would be needed to complement any such changes in style.