Freedom of Information



About this Item
SubjectsFreedom of information (FOI); Drought; Ombudsman
SpeakersArmstrong Mr Ian; Burton Ms Cherie
BusinessMatter of Public Importance


    FREEDOM OF INFORMATION
Page: 4381


    Matter of Public Importance

    Mr IAN ARMSTRONG (Lachlan) [4.59 p.m.]: I raise a matter of extreme importance to the people of New South Wales and point out the responsibilities of government and the Parliament. Many things are incumbent upon members of Parliament, the Parliament itself and particularly the Government of the day, irrespective of its persuasion. A primary responsibility is communication between people and those elected to power: the Government. That communication must be open, honest and in a form that is understood by the average person. Proper communication is necessary for the good conduct of business, commerce, culture and recreation. It will help to improve the quality of life, to ensure that New South Wales prospers and that people receive what they are reasonably entitled to expect.

    Business cannot operate properly without co-operation between the customer and business. The art of communication is extremely important; that is, communication between a service station attendant, a butcher, a doctor, factory operators or officers of the local shire to ensure that the shire and ratepayers have a good relationship and that the system works. The former conservative Government introduced the Freedom of Information Act. Under that legislation any citizen may apply to have information made available about a particular event, legislation or responsibilities under the management of the Government of the day. The Act is voluminous and contains certain exclusions.

    These exemptions are primarily matters of significance in that they may compromise the Government in the exercise of its responsibilities, such as a matter of national or local security. Also, the legislation seeks to respect the privacy of individuals who deal with government matters on a daily basis. Those matters, quite rightly, are protected through the freedom of information legislation. However, since the introduction of the Act, from time to time successive governments have refused certain applications, but only very few. Governments have been fundamentally forthcoming. I remember that following one freedom of information application 13 tea-chests full of information had been tipped onto the floor of the Jubilee Room and people were sifting through that information for weeks. In that case the Government of the day provided the information requested.

    Unfortunately, with this Government there are no tea-chests in the Jubilee Room; there would be hardly enough information to fill a tea-cosy. When this Government does not like an application it merely says, "Sorry, Cabinet confidential. You will have to pay an exorbitant amount of money to obtain information"—information which the Government has a responsibility to release to the public. I shall outline three examples of requests for documents under the freedom of information legislation. On 27 January I made an application seeking documents relating to drought assistance provided by the New South Wales Government. In particular I sought documents relating to the total amount of drought assistance provided to New South Wales primary producers, small businesses and rural communities since April 2001; the total amount of drought assistance provided during the current financial year to date, including monthly totals for September, October, November and December 2002; a complete breakdown on the costs, including the amount provided by each government agency and the number of people assisted; and projections for future spending in relation to the current drought. I also requested documents that fall within the scope of the application. I refer to a letter from Liz Dewar, Director of Natural Resources and Environment, which stated:

    Documents which I am claiming exemption and am not able to release are listed in Attachment 3.

    Consultation

    Treasury's consideration of your application has included consultation with NSW Agriculture, Premier's Department, Department of Land and Water Conservation, and the Premier's Office, where documents originated with, were received from, or contain information that may affect those entities.

    The letter outlined a long list of its exemptions, such as advice to Treasurer for use in Cabinet standing committees; advice to Treasurer for use in Cabinet meetings, and so on. In relation to information that was excluded, the letter concluded:

    I have determined that the following documents are exempt under Clause 9 of Schedule 1 of the Act, because it is an internal working document the disclosure of which would expose an opinion, advice or recommendation that has been prepared or recorded in the course of the decision-making functions of the Government and would, on balance, be against the public interest.

    Surely information on drought is within the public interest arena. This letter is not signed by a Minister but by a bureaucrat. The Premier has repeatedly stated in this House that New South Wales is going through the most significant drought in the history of this State, yet bureaucrats have said it is not in the interests of the State to have that information. The letter went on to state that if I wanted the information I was required to send a cheque for $840 and they would be happy to send the information, but that the processing charge had to be paid prior to release of the documents.

    The second application under the freedom of information legislation related to the names, locations, sizes of areas and dates of hazard reduction as shown on page 59 of the National Parks and Wildlife Service annual report, and the names, locations, sizes and dates in regard to areas that have been hazard reduced by means other than by prescribed burning on the North Coast. The letter in response to the application stated:

    NPWS officers have indicated that to collate the details you have requested it will take approximately 20 hours for each of the 19 regions, at the FOI processing cost of $30 per hour. This amounts to an approximate processing cost of $600 per region or $11,400 in total. I therefore require an advance deposit of $1000 …

    That is $1,000 for information that belongs to the public. The Government believes it paid for the production of those documents, but the people of New South Wales paid for it, and the Government wants to charge them $11,400 for that information. The third application was for all submissions and letters, both internal and external, memos, handwritten notes, post-it notes, printed and published information relevant to the proposal to build a $3 billion aluminium smelter at Lithgow. The determining officer on behalf of the New South Wales Department of State and Regional Development, Perce Butterworth, stated:

    This Department holds a number of files containing material regarding the proposed Lithgow Aluminium Smelter project …

    You were previously advised that prior to a determination being made on your application it would be necessary to consult with persons under Division 2 of Part 3 of the FOI Act … I have determined not to release any material relating to the Lithgow Aluminium Smelters Pty Ltd as I consider such material to affect their business affairs and to be exempt by virtue of Clause 7 of Schedule 1 of the FOI Act.

    That is the $3 billion aluminium smelter that the Premier trumpeted in this House day in and day out, yet suddenly it is off the agenda. The department said, "No, we are going to keep that information to ourselves." What is the department hiding? It should have been the first to explain why this project did not go ahead, so that it will not happen again. We do not know whether the Government stuffed up or whether the applicants withdrew their application. Indeed, a future application to build an aluminium smelter may suffer the same fate. The Government has an obligation and a responsibility to be frank and transparent so that other people wishing to build smelters in this State know the histrionics of previous applications. The Government cannot put its arm round and hide behind the FOI any longer. [Time expired.]

    Miss CHERIE BURTON (Kogarah—Parliamentary Secretary) [5.09 p.m.]: The Carr Government continues to champion and support freedom of information [FOI] as an important civil rights and administrative law reform for the people of New South Wales. I point out to the honourable member for Lachlan that New South Wales has some of the quickest time frames for processing FOI applications: 21 days to process an ordinary application and 35 days to process an application that requires third-party consultation. Each Government agency strives hard to achieve these time frames, and it is acknowledged that the harder a goal is set the more difficult it becomes to achieve. However, each agency FOI officer across the Government remains committed to pursuing the high ideals of the FOI Act.

    This legislation was introduced to the Parliament by the Greiner Government, and commenced in 1989. The Act has been periodically amended and improved in line with community expectations. Most of the amendments have been of a minor or inconsequential nature but some changes have marked major shifts in policy. Local government authorities were made subject to the FOI Act in 1992. The 1992 amendments also reduced the Act's original processing time limit from 45 days to 21 days. The main difficulty for aggrieved FOI applicants was the fact that legal challenges to decisions could only originally be lodged in the court system. The Carr Government made a significant improvement to the FOI Act by creating the Administrative Decisions Tribunal [ADT] and allowing FOI matters to be heard before the ADT in 1998.

    This major and positive reform has greatly facilitated the ability of FOI applicants to have a matter reviewed in a tribunal environment, which is much less expensive and less formalised than court processes. Of course, applicants will still have appeal rights before the courts, in addition to their right to have matters heard before a low-cost and easily accessed tribunal. The FOI Act permits access to government documents. It also allows people to access their personal records held by government departments and to amend incorrect, misleading and out-of-date data that relates to them personally. The FOI Act also specifically applies to Ministers' private offices.

    The honourable member for Lachlan said that it is difficult to get information from this Government. I point out that, apart from the fact that we have the shortest FOI turnaround times, we have many other ways that have been put online since this Government came to power by which people can access government documents quickly, easily and cheaply, and without the need to use the FOI process. The rise of the Internet and online access has seen a revolution in how people can interact with government departments. Literally, a multitude of government documents are freely available on government web sites for immediate download. People can access government documents of various classes by using legislation too. The Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act 1998, the State Records Act 1998 and the Local Government Act 1993 provide access regimes to various types of personal and non-personal information.

    Government departments now regularly load onto their web sites information that was once only released under FOI. This is an excellent example of the Carr Government embracing a culture of openness and accountability. For example, the State Rail Authority on-time running reliability and security statistics are now regularly published online, as well as the Department of Health's hospital waiting and elective surgery waiting time statistics. The Government Information service is yet another way that publications, brochures, maps, flags and other material are available to the public, either for free or by the payment of charges. The Government takes seriously its responsibilities in relation to FOI.

    We are pleased that the Ombudsman has reported a long-term decline in the number of complaints received about agencies refusing access to documents. In the past four years the number of complaints has fallen from 95 to 73. Similarly, during 2002-03 more than 80 per cent of matters were completed to the Ombudsman's satisfaction, usually because an agency agreed to take some positive action. I noted the observation that since 1995 the Ombudsman has reported an increase in the percentage of matters where only partial access to requested documents has been granted. The Ombudsman's case studies show that partial access to documents is often necessary to prevent the release of personal information about individuals. The Ombudsman's advice in areas such as good record keeping practices will be noted and adopted by the agencies.

    Pursuant to sessional orders business interrupted.