The Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader need to do much more to remove impediments to the free flow of information to the public. It is not the media that John Howard's proposals and those of Kevin Rudd will have to satisfy. Citizens are entitled to know details of what the federal government claims to be doing in their name.
Howard's Government has been the most secretive of modern times. A good illustration is the way in which it opposed, all the way to the High Court, anodyne requests for information about bracket creep and grants for new home owners. How can Peter Costello accuse the Opposition in this election of not knowing enough about bracket creep when under the existing Freedom of Information law he issued a conclusive certificate denying access to the information? His refusal was subsequently upheld by the High Court.
The Treasurer's actions prevented informed discussion of public policy and relevant data, discussions that can take place only if the public is fully informed. FOI (freedom of information) reform must make this type of unprincipled action impossible.
It is not as if Howard is resisting outrageous media demands. Most of the needed reforms were included in 1996 recommendations from his conservative law reform commissioners, about which he had done nothing for 11 years. Moreover, he has instituted the most centralised control over the flow of commonwealth information.
Not that it would be wise to put much more faith in reform by the alternative. Based on the record of most governments (of both persuasions) over a long time, chances are that after the first flush of office, Rudd as prime minister would be likely to stick with curbs on the flow of information as self-protection against the prying, relentless media. Most governments do.
The only way to change this deteriorating situation is to institute specific changes in FOI laws, accompanied by a change in the culture of government.
The McKinnon High Court case displayed the inadequacies of the present legislation. The operative clauses of the legislation do not specifically assume that all relevant information should be released.
Nor is there a requirement that before information is denied to the public, specified requirements must be met. Legal weasel words such as "reasonable" must be eliminated so that judges cannot, as the decision of the High Court did, turn the intention of the act on its head.
Of course, there will still need to be a core of exempt cabinet, defence and intelligence documents. And there is no suggestion that private health and other personal data should be accessible. Drafting of revisions should also tackle definitions to finally exclude the sort of rorts the Queensland government became noted for. It is the drafting of specifics that will determine whether there is to be a new world.
Equally, the culture of the bureaucracy has to be reoriented to openness, including properly shielding public servants from ministerial blame and retribution, particularly in these days of contract employment. The possibility of termination if you do your job of providing information must be eliminated. In the US, president Bill Clinton changed the onus with an executive order, requiring that any officials refusing public access to particular documents would have to prove they acted correctly.
Every department should have an information officer empowered to obtain and make available information, reporting to a service-wide information commissioner, who in turn is obliged to report to the public annually. The stalling that occurs to prevent information relevant to an ongoing controversy from being aired should be prevented. Information should not be denied just because the inquirer cannot precisely name the file or the precise category under which information is filed. The requirement should be that requests are answered within 14 days.
Fees should be capped at a low level: at the moment, prohibitive rates are often quoted when a public servant wants to deter inquiries. And all proposed legislation, under any title, embodying restrictions on public information should be subject to tough tests of the necessity.
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