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Attorney-General and Justice – RTI Problems

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Tags: Right to Information, Transparency

Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, the Ombudsman's report, Mr Connock's report, makes it clear that Tasmania is the most secret state in Australia when it comes to releasing information under right to information requests, and the public interest is not being served in Tasmania.

Mr Connock, the Ombudsman, doesn't have jurisdiction over RTI applications until departments have accepted fee-waiver requests. Multiple departments and agencies are now delaying the acceptance of fee waivers for weeks, or even months, and the Ombudsman, in this instance, can't do anything about that.

The statutory time frame doesn't commence until the fee has been waived, so in effect, departments are now unilaterally extending time frames for disclosure without there being any oversight mechanism, or any recourse for the applicant.

We have had multiple examples where right to informations from Ms O'Connor and myself have been held up for weeks, until a person in an RTI office determines whether we are an MP. The same thing happens for journalists. It is scandalous. It is a tactic that is being employed across many agencies now.

Do you think that is acceptable, or does the law need to be changed?

Ms ARCHER - I do not think it is acceptable, no, and I think the Premier made that very clear as well, the example that was cited during the committee by, I think, Ms O'Connor. It is pretty obvious that Ms O'Connor is a member of parliament, so I would agree with you on that.

Dr WOODRUFF - Okay. Is that a commitment from you, then, as Attorney-General -

Ms ARCHER - I think the Premier has already made the commitment that all of these matters that have been brought to our attention, through the report or otherwise, are being considered, and we are determined to improve the system and the interpretation of the act, yes.

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you, minister. It is really about a culture that is now pervading the Government, your Government. There are legal changes that need to be made to the act, but fundamentally there is a culture which needs to be reformed, and it is a culture -

Ms ARCHER - Yes, and we have dealt with that in the preceding question, in relation to taking an approach where there is consistency in decision-making, and accurate interpretation of the act.

Dr WOODRUFF - Really, it is about not troubling the minister, that seems to be where we have ended up in Tasmania. It is more important for public servants to be protecting the minister from exposure with uncomfortable information -

Ms ARCHER - I do not agree that that is always the culture. I have had many an RTI that causes me grievances, but it is the process, and it is open and transparent. I do not have any problem with that.

Dr WOODRUFF - It is not open and transparent, that's not true.

Ms ARCHER - I have had numerous RTIs where that has been the case, so it is not happening, certainly, on all occasions. I have strong faith in my own department. They do everything possible to be -

Dr WOODRUFF - The departments of Justice and Corrections are ones we have had particular problems with.

Ms HADDAD - Minister, with those RTIs that come into your department, do you have any

Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, there are many problems with the function of the RTI process as it stands at the moment. One of the most egregious and constantly cited is that often, pretty much at 5 p.m. on the last day of a period within which an RTI officer is required to provide information back to the applicant, a request for an extension is made. That is after a process which could already have had an extension of time to look for voluminous material or anything like that, so it is not to do with the nature of the request but simply with the resourcing in the government office and to provide the material. That is one thing that has to be clarified early on because it provides an opportunity for endless stringing out simply because of a lack of resourcing in government departments to provide RTI information. Do you accept that is something which needs to stop?

Ms ARCHER - One of the things we discussed in the meeting with the Ombudsman is whether or not a central system would assist in the process within government. You could have a model where you still have RTI officers within each department but there is a central body of some description that ensures that those things are kept progressing and gives any assistance that can be provided in that regard by way of resourcing. It would not prolong things but help in the efficiency and speeding up of these types of things that have been identified in the report. These are the things being looked at.

Dr WOODRUFF - I suggest that is a very good idea because there is another problem we are encountering all too frequently and only by accident really, because a public servant has written something down and I am sure most of these things are undertaken by conversation rather than in writing. There are at least two times that I can remember, once with an RTI request to DPAC, where the response from the RTI officer was that the reason it was being held up was because they had to get sign off from the Premier's Office. We also had that on another occasion with the Environment minister, needing sign off or a conversation with the minister's office before the RTI was completed. That is unlawful. What would you be proposing to put in place? It sounds to me like an independent separate body far away from a minister's offices might be one way to achieve it.

Ms ARCHER - We're guided by the Ombudsman on this on the basis that the Ombudsman will take a look at other jurisdictions if they have that type of model that we are thinking about and whether that works elsewhere or something else is better. I mention that as an example because we have not done thorough research as to whether or not that does in fact create efficiencies because we want to create efficiencies as well. We want to have the best model possible to ensure the outcomes are just and fair for the applicants. All I can reiterate is this is all being looked at in coming up with a model that works. I think at this point, though, we should also acknowledge that sometimes requests are indeed voluminous and can be what we call a bit of a fishing exercise in terms of not pinpointing stuff, so I will defend the departments in that regard in that sometimes it is very difficult to comply with time limits because the volume is so great, but I accept that there are instances where perhaps it is a different case.

Dr WOODRUFF - There is scope within the law to negotiate that and that is negotiated and that has legal time frames for negotiating. I am not talking about that.

Ms ARCHER - I just wanted to acknowledge that myself.

Dr WOODRUFF - Would there be a public consultation process around the changes to improve the RTI system, is that what you are proposing? Who would undertake it? Is it something the Ombudsman would be undertaking?

Ms ARCHER - If it requires legislative reform and we have to amend the act that obviously has public consultation, but as to what and when we decide, we will certainly make any announcements about that and I am sure it will be subject to many public consultations. We will be open and transparent about all of this.

Dr WOODRUFF - Do you have a time frame for that?

Ms ARCHER - Our conversation with the Ombudsman was on Friday and we would like to do things as quickly as possible to get this system up and running and operating better, so we will do our best to move as expeditiously as we can. As to a time frame, I can't give you a timeframe at this point in time but we have a strong commitment to do this as quickly as possible.