In May this year the Australian Information Commissioner quietly tweaked their Freedom of Information guidelines. There was no press release and no fanfare whatsoever. But this small amendment could entirely change the way that Parliament operates.
The new guidelines state that the Department of Parliamentary Services, the Department of the Senate and the Department of the House of Representatives were all subject to FOI and had been since 1999. For the first time ever, Federal Parliament in Australia is subject to Freedom of Information laws.
We should all be talking about this. We should all be writing about this. It’s perhaps the single greatest development in FOI law in Australia, and it was an accident.
The most obvious information is that relating to parliamentary expenses, the first of which has been released by the Sydney Morning Herald. This morning they published a table of the total number of expenses from suspended speaker Peter Slipper, and have requested all expenses documents for all members of parliament.
It’s important to take a step back and consider just how significant this change is. It’s a common practice for bureaucrats who know they are subject to FOI to keep their more explicit remarks away from their email or reports. They opt instead to communicate those sentiments via phone or in person, free from the prying eyes of journalists.
But the employees of Parliament will have foregone such measures, knowing they were safe from scrutiny. The thousands of candid conversations and previously unreleased reports that now appear to be subject to FOI will no doubt be sending the scurrying bureaucrats into a frenzy.
The three Parliamentary agencies certainly haven’t advertised that they are now complying with their newfound FOI obligations. All these agencies operate through the APH Website. Under the Act agencies are required to facilitate FOI access, but there are no obvious links to submit requests. It appears that for the moment employees of the Parliamentary Library are assisting with the processing of requests.
Given that the Department of Parliamentary Services has accepted the Herald FOI it seems clear though that the Information Commissioner’s interpretation of the matter is sound and won’t end up in the Federal Court.
If the government chooses to challenge this interpretation its only option is to attempt to pass legislation to amend the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner’s charges review has already indicated that another stage of reforms could be made soon for the FOI Act and such a change could be neatly bundled up with these.
"It has been long-accepted practice that the parliamentary departments are exempt from FOI," a spokesman for Roxon said yesterday. "The government is currently considering its options to correct this anomaly."
Screw the practice. The fact is this "anomaly" will allow the public access to a more candid picture of the way that government functions than has ever been seen before. It’s a shameful state of affairs when the Government of the day is actively campaigning to prevent access to Parliamentary documents.
Peter Timmins, an FOI expert in Australia who was the first to report the change earlier in May, wrote of Roxon’s remarks:
"This will be interesting, at a time when regard for politicians and parliament is at a low ebb, and "integrity" in public life in some respects at least seems missing in action. And when parliamentarians are only asked "voluntarily" to certify that use of entitlements is in accordance with the rules, and 52 still haven’t done so for the period January-June last year."
Whether the government can garner support to amend the Act will depend largely on the opposition and independents. The Greens have already indicated they would not support such a bill.
"Greater disclosure of the workings of parliament and the work of MPs is critical to a healthy democracy…" Green Senator Lee Rhiannon said in a statement. "The Australian Greens have welcomed the news that the Australian Information Commissioner has found that parliament is subject to FOI laws, and that has been the case for the past decade."
It would speak volumes about both Labor and the Coalition’s lack of respect for transparency if the parties united to change the FOI Act.
A similar situation occurred in the UK expenses scandal. While Heather Brooke’s renowned expenses requests were pending, a private members bill was introduced in 2007 to amend the UK Freedom of Information Act. While it managed to pass through the House of Commons, nobody in the House of Lords would sponsor the Bill and so it failed.
A motion was then attempted to be passed in 2009 in the House of Commons to exempt parliamentary expenses from the Act, but this failed due to a lack of support from opposition parties and widespread public outrage.
If a bill is put forward to amend the act there needs to be similar widespread resistance from both the public and journalists. Expenses are the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of unseen reports and documents exist within these agencies, the release of which would dramatically improve government transparency in Australia.
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