FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AMENDMENT (FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COMMISSIONER) BILL 2011

Posted on 16. Feb, 2012 in Speeches

Mr LIM (Clayton) — I rise to speak on the Freedom of Information Amendment (Freedom of Information Commissioner) Bill 2011. In little more than a year the Liberal Party has chalked up a litany of broken promises. They fall into three categories: firstly, promises it could never keep, such as implementing lock, stock and barrel the recommendations of the bushfires royal commission; secondly, promises it never intended to keep, such as making Victorian teachers the best paid in the land; and thirdly, promises made while in opposition that now, from the perspective of government, it does not want to keep. The promises in the third category, which the Liberal Party in opposition referred to as demonstrating openness and transparency, go to the very heart of accountable government, and they include the IBAC (Independent Broad‑based Anti‑corruption Commission) and FOI. From the perspective of government they no longer look like such a great idea.

The solution is to say with a straight face and without blushing that you are implementing them while doing the exact opposite. The result is that accountability mechanisms are being hobbled to ensure that they will not come back to bite the government on the proverbial backside. As far as broken promises go, this bill is breathtakingly cynical. The modus operandi of the Liberal Party is becoming clear: tell people you are implementing your election promises while doing the exact opposite and say it loudly and often enough in the hope that the public will swallow it. But people are just not as gullible as that.

This is what the Herald Sun had to say about the bill in its editorial of 11 December 2011 — not that long ago, as the member for Altona said. Unfortunately I note that the member for Altona quoted extensively as well, but I suppose repetition will do no harm in this case. The editorial says:

What a joke the legislation has turned out to be.

The commissioner will have no jurisdiction over ministers or their officers. Given that Premier Ted Baillieu has installed in his office a freedom of information adviser, Don Coulson, who personally drags in requests that could be embarrassing, this means the government will actually be less transparent, not more. The new commissioner will also be unable to review refusals to provide access to cabinet documents. And departmental secretaries will also be safe from the commissioner’s powers.

This means independent public servants can be scrutinised by the commissioner, but high‑level bureaucrats, ministers and political advisers cannot — despite their access to taxpayer funds and decisions that affect everyday Victorians.

The government should be ashamed of this disgraceful legislation.

That is what the Herald Sun said on 11 December last year. Its editorial went to the heart of the issue.

The Liberal Party’s 2010 election promises on FOI are contained in a document entitled The Liberal Nationals Coalition Plan for Freedom of Information. On page 4 of that document the Liberal Party promises:

The Liberal‑Nationals coalition plan will provide structural reforms that will change the network of FOI decision‑makers, from the top to the bottom, and remove them from the political process.

On page 5 the Liberal Party specifically promises to:

Ensure that the FOI commissioner and the FOI commissioner’s office will be independent of government and responsible for monitoring all FOI requests.

However, this bill will do exactly the opposite of that. The FOI commissioner will have no power to scrutinise decisions made by a minister, a minister’s office or the principal officer of an agency. Rather than taking political control out of FOI, this bill will enshrine it. It is the watchdog that will be taken out of the process, not the politicians. The watchdog will become a lap‑dog. This is after the Liberal Party promised, also on page 5 of its plan, to legislate to give the FOI commissioner responsibility for all first‑stage or internal reviews of FOI requests that are currently conducted by departmental staff. That just would not happen. With contentious or sensitive requests, either the principal officer of the agency would make the determination or the Premier’s office would call them in, thereby placing them beyond the reach of the FOI commissioner. And don’t I know it! That was the outcome of two requests I made. I cannot say they were recent requests because, although the responses were dated 20 January 2012, they were both made by me on 9 September 2011. That was four months ago. In the 1970s you could have sent a ship to London to request something, and it would have come back in time, but here it takes four months. So much for the Liberal Party’s complaint on page 3 of its policy document that:

There are excessive and unreasonable delays in processing requests made under freedom of information.

How cynical that is.

My requests — and they go to the core of what is wrong with this bill — sought documents on two of the Premier’s advisers, Nitin Gupta, special advisory to the Premier for the Indian community, and Gladys Liu, special advisory to the Premier for the Chinese community. The requests were largely refused, clearly on a political level, by Don Coulson in the Premier’s office. These two officers are on the public payroll, and their duties should be open to public scrutiny. Victorian taxpayers are entitled to be assured that these advisers are working for the state of Victoria and not the Liberal Party or the Premier’s faction. The Liberal Party’s promise in regard to FOI in 2010 is not just a broken promise; it is a big fat lie. Victorians deserve much better. The Herald Sun was correct: this bill is a joke and a disgrace.

 

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