Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1998 Week 8 Hansard (29 October) . . Page.. 2484 ..
MR QUINLAN (continuing):
the Assembly through its committees has been an issue over a lengthy period. More recently, it was raised by the Public Accounts Committee in 1997 and within the Estimates Committee in July of this year.
During the estimates hearing, when dealing with the business incentive scheme, I raised with the Chief Minister the possibility of setting up some process whereby, in the interests of maintaining public accountability, the Assembly could access commercial-in-confidence material. This committee subsequently corresponded with the Chief Minister on the matter, and the draft guidelines presented to the Assembly on 24 September are the result of that dialogue.
The committee's guiding principle in its examination of the draft paper has been the recognition for necessary guidelines for the ACT Public Service in dealing with requests for disclosure of commercial information. The committee has no difficulty with the guidelines presented as they apply to disclosure in these circumstances, that is, information within the Public Service. The guidelines establish an appropriate balance between government accountability, public interest and the rights of individuals and businesses which claim confidentiality for information provided to government. The committee did see the need for a relatively minor alteration to the guidelines, and it has recommended accordingly.
A more significant matter is the absence within these guidelines of confidentiality protection for the Territory's future bargaining position through disclosure of material relative to the Territory's commercial relationships. The committee has recommended that the guidelines be extended to cover this aspect. Unfortunately, we are talking about a little bit more coverage for commercial-in-confidence where it is necessary.
The committee had some difficulty with disclosure to Assembly committees. In the majority of cases there is little reason for not disclosing to a committee on a confidential basis material which is disclosed to government and its officials. The guidelines fail to draw a distinction between disclosure of information to a committee and its publication by that committee. The draft guidelines do not accord proper recognition of the responsibility of the Assembly as a whole and its committee structure in holding the Executive accountable to the community.
The paper from the Chief Minister also advances the concept of a ministerial claim of public interest immunity as a condition under which disclosure may or may not be made to a committee. The committee argues that the Assembly cannot accord a blanket recognition to claims of public interest immunity. Accordingly, the committee recommends a procedure whereby a Minister who claims public interest immunity should be required to provide for the committee's consideration a prima facie justification for such a claim. Where the committee does not accept such a claim and the information being sought is still withheld, then the committee should report to the Assembly its reasons for not accepting the Minister's claim. Obviously, the committee would then arbitrate on the matter.