New Bill to criminalise improper interference with FOI requests
The Liberals introduced a Bill making it illegal for a Government Minister, or their staff, from giving improper directions or influence to a Government agency that has been served with a Freedom of Information request.
In a national comparison of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, South Australia has often been referred to as the most secretive state in the nation after 12 years of Labor.
I recently spoke on this Bill in Parliament, below is the Hansard transcript.
Mr WINGARD ( Mitchell ) ( 11:20 ): I rise today to also speak in support of the member for Hartley's freedom of information amendment bill. I take note that a number of the newer members of this place have spoken on this bill. I would like to say a number of the younger members of this place but, unfortunately, I cannot.
An honourable member interjecting:
Mr WINGARD: You're right, I don't quite fit into the younger brigade. But, some of the newer members are younger and they have spoken on this bill, and I can see why, Deputy Speaker, because there is a frustration that comes with FOIs.
The principle of an FOI is to allow individuals to see what information government holds about them and to seek correction of that information if they consider it wrong or misleading. FOI enhances the transparency of policy making, administrative decision making and government service delivery, and a community is better informed when they can participate effectively in the nation's democratic processes. That is the intent of the FOI.
Yet, we hear today, and hear regularly, of people putting in for FOIs and finding frustrations with the information, or lack thereof, that is returned. I heard with interest the member for Chaffey speak before me and talk about requests that are made through FOI and the delays and procrastination with a lot of this information that is looking to be retrieved.
It has come to my attention in my short time in this place that, when you do make a request for some information, you have to be thinking of every which way someone might stifle you from having this information when you make your request, so the requests take an extra amount of time to collate and put together, an extra amount of time to submit and, because you have to make so many assertions and so many exceptions to how this question might be interpreted and/or the information returned, you potentially end up asking for copious more quantities of information than potentially you would need.
Again, as the member for Chaffey and those before me pointed out, that adds a great deal of cost to this process and it does make it very difficult. What is more, when the information comes back, time is wasted and procedures are wasted to go through the information and to try to find the answer to the question you are asking. That process to me, in my short time here, as I mentioned, I have found frustrating, and I know others have found it so as well; and it really does inhibit what we are looking for here, and that is the transparency and also the clarity of information from the government.
I was interested to hear the member for Wright talk from the public sector's perspective when they do have this information to give and are asked to give this information to a fellow member of parliament, the media, or anyone seeking some information. It does get very complex and very confusing for the person digging out the information because they are concerned how it is going to be perceived and how it is going to be used and, if pressure is brought to bear from outside sources, that is very much, in my opinion, unacceptable.
I talked about the reason for freedom of information, and another is the greater recognition that information gathered by government is at public expense and it is a national (or, in our case, state) resource and should be available more widely to the public. This is information that has been gathered by the public sector, a sector paid for by the public, so, ideally, this information is for them to access and be able to use. That is something I think we are perhaps glossing over here.
I do also note at this time, looking back over the history of this place and in doing some research on the late Bob Such and the great work he did in this place, a quote that I quite like and, probably unfortunately for me, in my short time it's one that sits with me as well. Bob spoke not of the freedom of information but the freedom from information. Again, it is interesting that some newer members here are finding this frustration, and older members, including the late Bob Such, found it equally as frustrating.
On that point I again concur with the member for Hartley and support his amendment bill. It is something that has happened in the past and it is something that is still happening today. To make this information more readily available and more easily available would be greatly appreciated by those from the past and, indeed, those present.
The FOI Act also promotes government accountability and transparency by providing a legal framework for individuals to request access to government documents; this includes documents containing personal and other information such as information about policy-making, administrative decision-making and government service delivery. Individuals can also request that ministers or agencies amend or annotate any information held about them.
I spoke about journalists previously, and in a past life I worked as a journalist. When I speak to my colleagues, some from my previous life but also now, they still talk about the frustration of freedom of information. I have spoken about the time wasted with MPs looking for information and requesting information and I know that same problem rolls over to journalists: anywhere they turn, anywhere they look they feel themselves being blocked. It does add scepticism to journalists, I suppose. I can see why that happens when they are, in their opinion, asking genuine legitimate questions and their perception is that, through FOIs, they are being denied this information that should be made freely and publicly available.
It is incredibly frustrating and, for what it's worth, I know that it does make journalists dig even harder to try to find the answers. I suppose there are those out there who think that if they can make it hard they might walk away and, potentially, some journalists might, but the good journalists I know when they feel they are coming up against a brick wall will work harder and dig harder to find information.
I must say again that I think the member for Hartley has done an outstanding job in what he is endeavouring to do here: to make it illegal for a government minister or their staff from giving improper directions or influence to a government agency that has been served with a freedom of information request. We can probably all stand here and say there is no way that would happen and it would be very disappointing and appalling if it were to happen. However, there has been too much evidence over time (and, as I said, in my recent time in this house) to not make you feel like that does happen on occasions. It is very disappointing to even think that way but the evidence is there to potentially point to those situations arising.
In a national comparison of freedom of information laws, South Australia has often been referred to as the most secretive state in the nation after 12 years of this Labor government. I find that incredibly disappointing. I have looked across a number of spectrums in this place and at a number of measurables for our state and how we have performed and how we rate. I have talked about the premiership table before in this house and about the things where we need to be sitting at the top but, unfortunately, South Australia has just slipped to the bottom of that table when we are talking about economic management and prosperity for this state.
We used to be in the top three, taking on New South Wales and Victoria but now, sadly, in a lot of those key economic indicators we have slipped down to the bottom of the table and we are fighting it out with Tasmania and some of the regions like Newcastle, Wollongong and even the Gold Coast. We are not stacking up all that well—and I say that is after 12 years of this Labor government. Yet again, here we are with another measurable where South Australia is deemed to be at the bottom of the table when it comes to freedom of information laws and potentially being one of the most secretive in the country, and that is incredibly disappointing.
A recent report tabled in parliament about South Australia's FOI laws by the state Ombudsman stated that:
…evidence provided to the audit strongly suggest that ministerial or political influence is brought to bear on agencies' FOI officers, and that FOI officers may have been pressured to change their determinations in particular instances.
To have the state Ombudsman, Richard Bingham, saying that is really an indictment on South Australia. I think it is something that we in this house should all be very disappointed about. We should be looking to make amends to that sort of assessment of the way we are going about our business. Again, that is why I support what the member for Hartley has done here with this freedom of information amendment bill.
In the past there has been no criminal penalty for ministers and their staff to unduly influence the release of important documents that are in the public interest—that is until now with these suggestions. A breach of these provisions will incur large fines and criminal convictions for those found guilty of the offence. It will also direct the appropriate FOI officer to report any breach of the new law to the Office for Public Integrity for further investigation.
I will finish off right now to save it going on. I think it is important to reform this law, given South Australia's freedom of information laws. If the Weatherill Labor government is serious about accountability to the community and about transparency, I think it must support this bill.