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Right To Information Amendment (Applications For Review) Bill 2019

Cassy O'Connor MP

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Tags: Right to Information, Legislation, Transparency

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Speaker, I want to make a brief contribution of the Right to Information Amendment (Applications for Review) Bill 2019 and to state unequivocally that I agree with everything said by my colleague, Dr Woodruff. We will be supporting the legislation, but it is grindingly frustrating to know that we have been here before. The Greens tabled an amendment bill to deal with this issue that was identified by the Supreme Court. In 2016 we tabled that bill and it was voted down by Government members.

Earlier this year, my colleague, the member for Clark, Ms Haddad, tabled a Right to Information amendment bill that dealt with this issue and some others and then, as was detailed by Dr Woodruff, we had the Supreme Court decision.

The Premier, his ministers, the people to whom they delegate, have known about this issue going back to 2015. We raised this across the Estimates table with the Premier year after year because we identified that the Right to Information Act 2009 was being abused, that the objectives of the act which are about the disclosure of information in the public interest acknowledgement that the information is held for and on behalf of the people of Tasmania. We could see what was happening under this government, that undermined the principles of the Right to Information Act.

We have a filing cabinet fat with redacted RTI applications. We have numerous pieces of correspondence where we were having departmental officers come back to us, try to refine the scope and then make excuses for not responding within the statutory time frame.

We have had repeated instances of ministers knowingly delegating decisions that they know, under the act as it currently stands, cannot be internally reviewed and therefore not subject to external review. When I asked the Premier about this across the Estimates table back in 2016 he said we will make sure, and I am paraphrasing here, if he wants to come in and restate the commitment that he did not meet at the time, 'we will make sure that that practice, we will have a look at that, and that practice will cease' and it did not cease.

As recently as 2017 Estimates, a decision was wilfully delegated by the Minister for State Growth, Mr Gutwein, to his secretary, Mr Evans, in relation to the south coast track. It was knowingly delegated in order to provide zero information. In many ways that was confirmed by Mr Evans after repeated questions from us across the table where he said that is right, that decision is not subject to internal review. Last year, three full years after the Premier was first made aware of this abuse of the Right to Information Act 2009, we have his minister for State Growth delegating a decision around a controversial expressions of interest process knowing that it could not be internally reviewed, knowing that that was a dead end to that application.

We already have enough trouble getting information out of government in relation to a secretive expressions of interest process that is underpinned by a flimsy statutory framework and calling all decisions and processes internal to the Government and the Office of the Coordinator-General's commercial-in-confidence. We already have that to deal with, where public lands are being traded with private companies and no information is released to the owners of that land because the government of the day has decided it is all commercial-in-confidence. We have seen the act being abused over and over and over again by this Government.

A memorable example was when Basslink had broken in the summer of 2016. The minister responsible was on holiday on the east coast and did not make a public appearance for some days after Basslink broke. We wanted to determine in the middle of an energy crisis where the minister was and what level of interest or concern he had taken in the fact that the cable had fried. We made an application for the minister's diary. If anything should be available to the public - in fact, I would argue that ministers' diaries should be published online, it is a minister's diary. They are a public official, paid for out of the public purse, administering public funds and they are the front line of the interface with private business and commercial enterprises. Tasmanians should understand how the ministers they pay are spending their time. They should have the right to know who ministers of the Crown are meeting with on their job, paid for by the public purse. That you can have such opacity in relation to something as basic as a ministerial diary says everything we need to know about this Government's lack of respect for the principles and the objectives of the Right to Information Act.

We waited months. The statutory time frames blew out, there was the seeking of clarification, more time frames blown out and then what did we get? We got a compilation; it was not a diary it was a compilation of times and events that had been prepared, I would assume, in the minister's office. It had all these redactions. For meetings with his own agency, it would just say 'meeting' and with a private operator it would say something like 'private meeting'. There was a deliberate attempt not to be transparent about a minister's fairly laissez faire attitude to his portfolio in the middle of an energy crisis.

There was the Safe Pathways right to information saga - that is the only way to describe it. This is where a government agency had contracted a for-profit provider and placed some of our most at-risk, vulnerable children in the hands of a for-profit provider who we find out as a result of national ABC media coverage was taking about $9000 a week from the Government for a child and spending plus or minus $100 a day on them - children without proper shoes. The Safe Pathways right to information request was the same frustrating obstacle course that we had to go through. It was very clear to us that the department should have provided the information because there was no legal, legitimate impediment for it not to do so, but it came across as if the department was protecting itself and therefore protecting the minister.

Over and over again, when we submit Right to Information applications with Government all we have is obfuscation, extensions or breaches of statutory time frames, and invariably information that comes back redacted and not even compliant with the act. We all received a letter that said, 'We've got all of this information, we're not telling you what it is, but it is not in the public interest that we release it'.

In the olden days, like five years ago, when a department said that we have information but for these reasons we will not be releasing it, you received a table of the documents they had at the very least. You received a proper statement of reasons for why the information would not be released to the public or why it had been so heavily redacted. That just does not happen anymore. We need to remove the loophole, which was identified to Government three or four years ago, that prevents internal reviews when Government ministers take it upon themselves to delegate decisions. Of course, we need to do that. But we also need to be really honest. In the second reading speech, with an Orwellian touch, the Attorney-General says:

The Government remains committed to improving the openness, accountability and transparency of the operations of government in Tasmania. This is why we have acted quickly to address this matter.

What a load of utter rubbish. We pointed this out to the Government three years ago. It was during a debate on our amendment bill that we detailed the problem and how it was being exploited. It was dealt with through an amendment put forward by Ms Haddad. The Government has been pushed into this kicking and screaming as a result of pressure in this place and finally a Supreme Court decision, which tells the Government what we have been saying in this place for close to four years.

Pardon my frustration, but to have such Orwellian language used in a second reading speech is a bit like saying, 'hate is love, peace is war, lies are truth'. The Government did not act quickly. The Government stalled and stalled. It continued to exploit the loophole as recently as late last year when the Minister for State Growth, who did not want to put information on the public record about the secretive expressions of interest process, delegated the decision to his secretary knowing that it would be the end of it.

I also want to raise a concern about the substantial backlog in the Ombudsman's office. It is our understanding that only four decisions came out of the Ombudsman's office last year. There were four external review decisions. My understanding is that there are currently dozens of decisions sitting there waiting to be signed off by the Ombudsman. I urge the Attorney-General to take a direct personal interest in the backlog of cases sitting in the Ombudsman's office. I understand that some resourcing has been put into the Ombudsman's office. I urge the Attorney-General to make some discreet inquiries about why decisions are going into a Rip-Van-Winkle land in the Ombudsman's office, particularly given that extra resourcing has been allocated to the office.

We will be supporting this legislation. I want to support the amendments that have been put forward by Dr Woodruff that formalise in the act that a person who is a journalist has an exemption from costs for requesting information under the act. As it is with us, when we are at our best as the Greens are every day of the week, journalists are acting in the public interest. Therefore it should be formalised that when members of the press seek information in the public interest under the Right to Information Act they should not have to pay for that information to be provided to them.