Sweeping away a culture of secrecy

Jut after a weekend where we had our Speaker of the parliament re-impose secrecy oer MP travel spending and his constant refusal to even entertain opening up more of Parliamentary Services to the Official Information Act we have some interesting news from across the Tasman where the Federal Government is sweeping away the veil of secrecy.

Information is powerful. Very powerful. It can dispel myths and reveal the true nature of things. It can shed light on events and provide a better understanding of the decisions that have shaped our nation.

When the pieces are put together, information can reveal scandals, shine light on corruption and maladministration and even bring down governments. But equally, some information can place lives at risk and compromise a nation’s security.

Valid questions about the publication of sensitive information have been raised with the release of information about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars on the website Wikileaks.

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The Freedom of Information Act is one of the most powerful tools Australians have to get government information – about themselves or about issues of community concern. Importantly, the act also governs what cannot be released, so to protect the national interest and Australian lives.

But far from being afraid of information, we should embrace the free flow of it as a feature of a democratic nation wherever possible. And that is the approach we’ve taken on disclosure.

This is from Brendan O’Connor the Labor Minister for Home Affairs, Justice, Privacy and Freedom of Information in Australia. But wait his statement gets better.

Since coming to office, Labor has conducted the most extensive overhaul of the Freedom of Information Act since its inception, and the first tranche of those changes takes effect today.

But why is this needed? The fact is, in the decade before Labor came to office, a culture of concealment and suppression crept in, and the nation moved away from an attitude of disclosure, transparency and accountability.

What’s not secret is that this attitude of arrogance and avoidance of accountability wasn’t lost on the Australian public. It contributed in no small part to the downfall of the Howard government.

The Coalition’s practice of issuing conclusive certificates under the Freedom of Information Act was profound in its effect, successfully locking up information to prevent its release. Labor takes a starkly different view. We are determined to restore community trust in the way information is handled by government with major reform of the act.

We have already abolished ministers’ use of conclusive certificates to block access to information, but we are going much further.

Ignoring the political statement at the front it is stil admirable that they are attempting to remove “a culture of concealment and suppression”. Pity Lockwood Smith doesn’t believe in open-ness. But here is a template for open-nes we could easily adopt. Emphasis is mine.

At the core of the freedom-of-information reforms is a somewhat overdue recognition that government information is a national resource. Just like our water, minerals and beaches, information is not owned by one person but is an asset for our free and democratic nation to share.

A wholesale revision of the way freedom-of-information requests are treated begins today. A single public-interest test will override previous exemptions and new processes will compel a culture of disclosure.

We know application fees can be a deterrent. That is why, from today, there will not be any application fee for an FOI request or a subsequent internal review. Importantly, people seeking access to their own personal information will no longer have to pay any fees whatsoever.

The first five hours of decision-making time will now be free for all, slashing the expense previously faced by would-be applicants.

Probably the most controversial element of the new laws is the so-called ”disclosure logs”, which will operate from May next year. This will see responses to FOI requests published on ministerial and department websites within 10 days of disclosure to the applicant – for all to see. This is consistent with a new pro-disclosure culture where government information is owned by the public.

And with a new rulebook comes new umpires. Today, Professor John McMillanwill take up the role of Australian Information Commissioner – an independent adviser on government information.

He will be supported by the current Privacy Commissioner and the newly created Freedom of Information Commissioner. Together, they will be advocates and enforcers of the nation’s approach to FOI and privacy.

With these reforms, the Gillard government is ushering in a new era of openness. There’s an oft-quoted saying that sunshine is the best disinfectant. With this new approach, we’re opening the curtains that have been closed for so long and letting the daylight reveal our nation as it is.

John Key should cal in Lockwood Smith and give him a good smacking. If Labor in Australia can implement this then why not Labour in New Zelaand support similar changes? If the big parties won’t then how about The Greens or Act embracing changes like this?

The pity is that parliament is run by the politicians, literally the foxes are in charge of the hen house. They don’t want their secret deals exposed, they don’t want public scrutiny. In aAustralia on top of all these changes they also have the ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption), we have no such protections from the rapacious and secret actions of our politicians.

It is time for some sunlight here in New Zealand. Instead of a Speaker unilaterally re-imposing unconscionable secrecy and a Justice Minister trying to control the internet we should be embracing open-ness and honesty. We should be passing laws like Sweden and Iceland have to protect sources, to welcome freedom of information and have  a goal to have the most open parliament int he world.

The Herald would be far better running a campaign to open up our parliament to the OIA than a silly two drinks max campaign.

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.