BY ANNE VON FEHRN
The Federal Government is slowing down changes to the federal Freedom of Information Act well into 2009 despite its election promise to overhaul the outdated system this year.
Last month, Special Minister of State John Faulkner announced only minor changes to the existing act, saying that extensive reforms are now subject to an exposure draft expected by the end of this year.
Despite Senator Faulkner’s announcement to abolish conclusive certificates ‘ the right of Ministers and senior bureaucrats to block the release of documents in labelling them as not in the public interest ‘ critics say all evidence suggests that Freedom of Information (FoI) under the Rudd Government is no different than it was under Howard.
‘Part of the problem is that we still don’t know the detail of it,’ said Professor John Wood, Director for Effective Markets and Governance (FENAG) at the Australian National University.
A specialist in FoI matters, Professor Wood says that abolishing conclusive certificates is only the very first step to change the 25-year-old FoI Act. ‘Their undertaking is really good but if we don’t see the detail we’ll get carried away,’ he said.
Senator Faulkner rejected criticism the Government was moving too slowly. ‘We are not rushing FoI reform. It’s going to be a consultative process and that is an appropriate way to deal with this very important area of public policy,’ he said.
However, the Government has shut down an inquiry of the Australian Law Reform Commission looking into the existing FoI Act. It was due to report its findings by the end of this year.
Senator Faulkner said the inquiry was no longer necessary and there would be a new one once the system had undergone significant changes by 2009.
Professor Wood said: ‘To get the best results we should have the inquiry continue its work so that we get the best to date results.’
He said one crucial criterion was to reduce the fees for accessing documents. He also suggested the new act include an object clause defining that the purpose of the legislation is to facilitate access to information.
Peter Timmins, a lawyer turned consultant, said the Government needed to take into account the way technology has changed over the last decade.
‘In the Internet age we should expect our governments to utilise the technology to improve communication between Government and its citizens,’ he explained. ‘Our model is out of touch and there are many things that could be done immediately instead of waiting for further recommendations.’
He said communication between government and its citizens could be improved by giving people the tools to do so more effectively. ‘The chronic secrecy amongst departments needs to be addressed,’ he said.
Senator Faulkner admitted that a change of culture across departments might take time but said the Government was committed to creating more transparency. ‘The FoI Act is complex and we want to get the new laws right,’ he said.
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