[LINK] FOI Good News and Bad News
Roger.Clarke at xamax.com.au
Fri Nov 30 13:51:12 AEDT 2007
[The Bad News:
"When he was working for the Queensland government years ago, Rudd
was famous for undermining the state's FoI laws, and there are plenty
of people who've been expecting him to do the same in Canberra."
[The Good News 1:
"Rudd's team promised to change the FoI law within the first term. "
Rudd's words were "But let me just give you one core example. I'm
determined to do something about freedom of information. This is
notoriously seen as something that executive governments don't like
because it causes information to go out which might be embarrassing.
I'd like to, by contrast, encourage a culture of disclosure within
government departments." [Only "I'd like to", but alsi "I'm
[The Good News 2:
" ... he has appointed ... John Faulkner, a man whose considerable
attributes include his lack of legal qualifications."
Not just the law but the culture needs fixing
Freedom of Information Column
The Sydney Morning Herald
Date: November 29 2007
POLITICIANS rarely talk about freedom of information, and the few
that do are usually in opposition. So when a politician in government
raises the issue, it's worth taking notice, especially when it's the
new prime minister who's under no pressure to do so.
Have a look at what Kevin Rudd said on the 7.30 Report this week and
it's hard not to get a bit excited that the obsessive secrecy
fostered by John Howard's administration might be about to change .
Asked about a recent letter in which former prime ministers Gough
Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser urged an inquiry into declining standards
of ministerial accountability, Rudd agreed there were declining
standards of Westminster government and promised a code of conduct
with which ministers would be required to comply.
And then he volunteered this: "But let me just give you one core
example. I'm determined to do something about freedom of information.
This is notoriously seen as something that executive governments
don't like because it causes information to go out which might be
embarrassing. I'd like to, by contrast, encourage a culture of
disclosure within government departments."
How refreshing is that? When he was working for the Queensland
government years ago, Rudd was famous for undermining the state's FoI
laws, and there are plenty of people who've been expecting him to do
the same in Canberra.
Rudd's remarks and his appointments yesterday are clear signals his
thinking has now changed. Note the use of the word "core", made
famous by Howard's description of core and non-core promises. By
using FoI as his core example in one of his first interviews of what
must change, Rudd has deliberately reinforced the policy he released
in Opposition to "drive a culture shift across the bureaucracy to
promote a pro-disclosure culture".
He's right to identify changing the culture as the critical issue in
making FoI laws work. It can only happen if the person at the very
top campaigns for it in public and inside the government. There's not
much point tinkering with the legislation if government departments
are encouraged to spend millions on the best legal brains to run
cases right up to the High Court to stop the release of documents as
basic as those showing the effect of bracket creep on tax cuts.
Changing the culture is never easy but it will be a huge challenge in
the Commonwealth bureaucracy Rudd has inherited where some
departmental heads write conclusive certificates banning the release
of documents sought under FoI with alacrity.
Rudd has already promised to ban conclusive certificates, which will
be a good start in changing the culture, but he needs further
substantial changes to the law as well.
There are far too many exemptions. The notion every document prepared
for cabinet needs to be exempt is ridiculous. New Zealand's FoI laws
allow cabinet documents to be routinely released and no one suggests
that's causing any damage to the country.
Fees need to be contained and perhaps it's time Rudd thought about
including some penalties in the act so that government departments
that breach or obstruct the law are punished. Now that might help
speed up the culture change.
In opposition, Rudd's team promised to change the FoI law within the
first term. If he's going to change the culture in this notoriously
difficult area, he should make the changes fast, preferably in the
first six months.
He'll need advice, and should consult widely, preferably outside the
His inclusion in cabinet of a cabinet secretary with specific
responsibility for "integrity functions within government" and for
FoI in particular, is another good sign.
One reason FoI has not worked in the past is it has been buried in
the Attorney-General's Department where it has lacked a champion. By
giving a minister a specific job of making the FoI law work is a very
positive move. Even better is the fact the person he has appointed is
John Faulkner, a man whose considerable attributes include his lack
of legal qualifications. It's about time we had less law and more
common sense in deciding what information the public has a right to
Matthew Moore is the Herald's Freedom of Information Editor. What
They Won't Tell You returns next year.
Roger Clarke http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/
Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd 78 Sidaway St, Chapman ACT 2611 AUSTRALIA
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mailto:Roger.Clarke at xamax.com.au http://www.xamax.com.au/
Visiting Professor in Info Science & Eng Australian National University
Visiting Professor in the eCommerce Program University of Hong Kong
Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre Uni of NSW
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