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Shine light on wheels of power

26 January 2009 830 views No Comment

Shine light on wheels of power

Ross Fitzgerald | January 26, 2009

Article from:  The Australian

WHILE others fight the economic wildfire, Special Minister of State Senator John Faulkner, is paving the way for substantial freedom of information and electoral reforms, which as part of our right to know would be welcome gifts to Australia. They would make the work of the Australian Government and political parties less covert and mark a huge cultural change in public administration via increased transparency and accountability.

After the troublesome nature of the last few Howard years and systemic problems in several ALP state governments, these days public trust in government is a rare commodity.

In his quest to restore such trust, this year Faulkner not only intends to rewrite the Freedom of Information Act to free up government information, he has indicated that he also wants to change key elements of Australia’s electoral system.

It’s difficult to tell which is the tougher task.

Fundamental FOI reform will change the modus operandi of bureaucracy and media. Electoral reform will change the way our democracy operates. Resistance to these reforms will almost certainly be strong and often subterranean. While we are unlikely to see anyone bagging transparency and accountability in public, behind the scenes there will be considerable resistance.

The Rudd Government will release a draft FOI Bill for public comment in the first half of this year. The legislation will be compared with Queensland Premier Anna Bligh’s proposed root and branch reforms of the state’s public information regime. Lawyer and journalist David Solomon examined the Queensland Government’s information arrangements and went through them like Drano. Unusually, the Queensland Government seems to have accepted almost all of his recommendations.

For example, Bligh’s draft Right to Information laws now places only a 10-year ban on disclosure of cabinet documents. It states unambiguously that “Government embarrassment is an irrelevant factor” in deciding a public interest test for release of material under FOI. While material relating to security or deemed commercial in confidence would remain largely exempt, a great deal more information will be released to the public and-or the media.

Already Faulkner has introduced federal legislation to abolish FOI conclusive certificates, a legal device used by ministers of all political persuasions to stop FOI documents being issued. Although such documents may have been approved for release, these certificates have often been used as a last recourse to prevent sensitive material from seeing the light of day.

No doubt there will be heavy backroom lobbying by departmental secretaries to prevent freeing up information, but in the digital age, citizens expect unparalleled access to stored information, to government research and reasoning, and to their own personal data. Britain and the US already allow previously unimaginable access to files and data held by their governments.

The Queensland and federal reforms will each involve a statutory FOI commissioner who will oversee information policy. The commonwealth FOI commissioner will arbitrate FOI disputes and streamline release processes, but the details of the powers of the position promptly need to be made public.

This year will also see draft federal legislation to protect government whistleblowers from recrimination for what is euphemistically called “protected disclosures”. The terms of reference also explore whether whistleblower protection should be extended not just to public servants, but also to contractors to the commonwealth and retired commonwealth workers. The House of Representatives Legal and Constitutional Committee report into these reforms is expected at the end of next month.

Faulkner’s bid to reform the Electoral Act will also provoke resistance: from individuals and groups who want to influence parties with financial donations, from politicians who enjoy being duchessed, and from those who believe parliamentary politics is merely another marketplace.

The Australian Electoral Commission’s annual disclosure of political donations occurs next Monday and will cover donations for the period running up to the 2007 election. The figures will show how much was donated, but will leave many big donors’ identities in the shadows. This is because in 2005 the Howard government moved the donation disclosure threshold to $10,000, indexed annually for inflation. Thus anyone donating less than $10,900 to a political party presently remains anonymous.

Faulkner wanted (and still wants) to drop the threshold to $1000, and to have twice yearly disclosure from July 1, 2008. He introduced the Political Donations and Other Measures Bill (2008) last June. Yet for reasons that remain unclear, the Opposition blocked the bill. This means that for the whole of 2008, the identities of many donors who have given up to almost $11,000 to Australian political parties (or more if they donate to different state branches) will remain hidden.

Faulkner’s Electoral Green Paper released before Christmas examines all these issues and advocates limiting campaign expenditure, and either capping or banning donations. The Prime Minister has already flagged his preference for a cap.

For years, Faulkner has waited patiently to try to improve the administrative, legislative and electoral systems. If this year his reforms are pushed through federal Parliament without too much white-anting, trust could return – in some degree – to the battered and cynical body politic.

Submissions to the Electoral Green Paper can be lodged until the end of February on: http://www.pmc.gov.au/consultation/elect-reform/index.cfm .