I seek leave to make an explanation before asking the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation, representing the Minister for Administrative Services, a question about the Freedom of Information Act.
The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: Amendments to the Freedom of Information Act were to sweep in a new era of openness and accountability through changes to the use of cabinet and commercial confidentiality and were a key plank in this government’s election promise of a 10 point plan for honesty and accountability. In his second reading speech of 28 August 2002, then minister for administrative services Hon. JayWeatherill quoted from Labor’s election policy, as
Labor will set new and higher standards. These standards will not be vague statements of intent, but will be enforced, and key elements will be made law. A good government does not fear scrutiny or openness. Secrecy can provide the cover behind which waste, wrong priorities, dishonesty and serious abuse of public office may occur.
South Australians have learnt from bitter experience how detrimental secret dealings can be to the public interest.
The legislation underwent extensive examination by the parliament, including referral to the Legislative Review Committee and a deadlock conference between the chambers.
It finally received assent on 6 June this year. I was surprised, therefore, after lodging an FOI request to the department of environment and heritage that in the department’s reply the parliamentary exemption is quoted at the old rate of $350.
Further investigation demonstrates that some 3½ months after assent this bill has not been gazetted. My questions are:
1. What is the reason for the delay in the gazettal of the FOI Act?
2. When will the act be gazetted?
3. How is this delay consistent with the government’s claims that it is honest and accountable?
4. What does the government advise opposition and minor parties to do in the event that their FOI requests are hampered by the application of the old exemption rate?
The Hon. T.G. ROBERTS (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation): I do not have responsibility for the portfolio, but some administrative changes would be needed such as changes to stationery, changes to forms and a whole range of other administrative acts that have to occur, which would take time. However, I will pass on the honourable member’s question to the minister in another place and bring back a reply.
Monday 23 May 2005
In reply to Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (21 September 2004).
The Hon. P. Holloway, on behalf of Hon. T.G. ROBERTS: The Minister for Administrative Services has provided this information:
In the interests of efficiency and owing to the nature of the questions asked by the Honourable Member on the 21 September, 2004, I have taken the liberty of providing one response to the first three questions.
1 to 3. As the House is aware, the Freedom of Information (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill 2002 was introduced into Parliament in late August, 2002. During the next 21 months it received much debate and amendment in both houses of Parliament.
It passed on 6 May, 2004 as a result of a deadlock conference between the two houses. One of the resolutions of the deadlock conference was to raise the fee-free threshold for Members of Parliament from $350 to $1000 per Freedom of Information (F.O.I.) application. The Freedom of Information (Miscellaneous) Amendment Act 2004 was assented to on 3 June, 2004.
For administrative convenience, legislation is often proclaimed either at the beginning of the financial year or the beginning of the calendar year. With the Act's being assented to in June, it was not possible to have it proclaimed at the start of this financial year. The timing of proclaiming the Act has been a conscious decision to allow for a planned approach to its implementation and to ensure all agencies are thoroughly informed of the changes to the legislation, and this is consistent with past practice. The Act was proclaimed on 2 December, 2004 and came into operation on 1 January, 2005.
The new legislation will promote openness and accountability in Government, which will enhance respect for the law and help members of the public participate in civic life.
I am advised that the last three financial years have seen, on average, an increase of 10 per cent in F.O.I. applications made to agencies. This steady increase of F.O.I. applications during that time can be attributed to this Government's raising awareness of the legislation. As part of the review of the F.O.I. regime in South Australia, we recognised that administrative changes were also needed that could be carried out independently of the amendments to the legislation. I understand these administrative changes have been made while the amendments to the legislation made their odyssey through Parliament. Over the last 12 to 18 months this
Government has overseen:
A Freedom of Information Charter on Citizens' Rights to Information that is prominently displayed in all government offices and buildings;
A Freedom of Information Electronic Discussion Forum on the State Records website;
Monthly reporting from agencies;
A F.O.I. Process Guide to provide guidance to F.O.I. officers when processing applications; and
F.O.I. training programs and F.O.I. workshops, including workshops in regional centres and special workshops provided solely for local-government agencies.
4. The threshold which applies to Members of Parliament is $1000.
I have not been apprised of any evidence that M.P's F.O.I. applications are hampered. I am informed that in most instances they are processed within 30 days and, from statistical data provided by agencies for the last financial year, not one M.P. was charged.
I would, nevertheless appeal to M.Ps to give consideration to the scope of the applications they make to agencies. I have been advised that on many occasions agencies seek clarification about the scope of the application, and when M.Ps are advised of the cost, the application is either reduced or withdrawn. This causes much frustration and unproductive time within Government, and, in many cases, goes beyond the intent of the legislation.