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Right To Information Amendment (Applications For Review) Bill 2019


Rosalie Woodruff MP

Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Tags: Right to Information, Legislation

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Madam Speaker, the right to information is a core principle of an open and democratic society. The principle is that we the people, all citizens of a democratic community, are able to hold a government to account for the deeds they say they will do, the deeds they have done. To be able to shine the light of transparency and openness into all the mechanisms and the decision-making of government is an incredibly important principle. It is one of the most essential tenets that differentiates democratic and fair and just societies from authoritarian dictatorships. It is one which helps us to sort through terrible trends towards propaganda, spin, obfuscation and secrecy, all of which is designed to hide the actions of governments that ought to be representing the people who voted for them in a fair and just way.

That is the society that all Tasmanians and all Australians want to live in. That is the society we expect to be living in. The right to information has long been an important mechanism for people in the community to be able to have checks and balances on members of parliament, members of government, members of local government and people who are paid in public service who are meant to be acting in the best interests of the community. It is the mechanism by which we can check that what they say they do is what they are actually doing.

One of the hallmarks of this Liberal Government has been a dramatic slide into obfuscation around the decision-making of ministers and the processes of government for awarding contracts and tenders for making decisions about management plans for World Heritage Areas, approvals for massive expansions of the fish farm industry and the workings of businesses who have alleged acts of animal cruelty that occur. All of these things are questions of great interest and concern to people in the community, but we have seen this Government time and again use the Right to Information Act in the most cynical way to hide the workings and decision-making of ministers and provide a veil of secrecy behind which ministers and the Liberal Cabinet hope to be able to carry out the intentions of the Government without the openness and conviction they ought to have.

If a government is so convinced they are right, what have they got to hide? This has always been the question I do not understand. I sincerely do not understand why ministers hide behind right to information and provide members of parliament and members of the public with this rubbish RTI decision responses where we have pages and pages of blacked-out email responses, pages which have no information in there that would be of a personal or confidential nature.

Obviously you would expect to have people's names and addresses and it is taken as a given that that sort of sensitive personal information would be redacted. However, this Government has used the right to information and misused the office and essentially provided direction, whether it is spoken or cultural, I am not sure. We cannot know for sure but the decisions of right to information officers under this Government are fundamentally different to the decisions that were made under the previous Labor-Greens government - the same act but a different application.

What we see at play here is an approach from this Liberal Government of sneakiness, special deals and a determination to go about things in the way that they want to without the guts to be clear with Tasmanians about what they are doing. So last year in budget Estimates we had the Leader of the Greens, Ms O'Connor, asking questions about the processes for the South Coast Track expressions of interest and the potential for developments in the beautiful Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The minister obfuscated and did not answer the questions. We found out subsequently he ended up delegating that decision to the secretary of the department. Consequently, under the interpretation of the act that this Government makes, it was no longer possible for an internal review and therefore that decision was not able to be externally reviewed.

Core decisions of this Government about developments in wilderness areas in world heritage areas in national parks are kept from the community because they stink. They are about special deals being made with private developers to get a leg up with public land, to get free public land made available to them with a special deal to go into areas which the world community has recognised for their globally unique characteristics. They are wilderness areas and in wilderness areas there is no place for private developments. There is certainly no place for the sort of process, the expression of interest process, the secret process which this Government has been undertaking now for years.

We are seeing the results of that coming through with advertisements and bits of information popping up as though they are foregone conclusions where the public has been completely written out of the opportunity to have a say about public land - land which we hold in trust for the rest of the global community not just for today, not for the next 20 years, but forever. We Tasmanians are responsible for looking after that land and for ensuring that it stays in public hands and is not privatised off to whoever this current crop of Liberal ministers is doing a special deal with.

This is where we have sunk to with the right to information in Tasmania. It is a mechanism of stonewalling. I was speaking to Ms O'Connor about the experiences of the Labor-Greens government - the same right to information act but a totally different approach. The culture of the Greens ministers, the two Greens ministers, was utterly hands off. A clear and direct signal was sent from the minister's offices: do not come near us with a right to information request, we do not want to know. It is not the business of ministers to meddle at all in right to information decisions. That is a role for the department to take. We will stand aside from that. We will let the department go through the processes.

As Ms O'Connor said on a number of times, the first time as minister she heard about a right to information result of an application was just before the opposition member stood up in parliament to speak about what was found in there.

That is how it should be. If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about. You are making decisions the best way you can. As a minister, you have to be prepared to stand up and justify your decisions but if you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to hide. By that way of thinking, what does it say about all of the redacted information that we have had for years. The converse is probably the case. If you hide everything then you have a real lot to hide.

Let me go to another example which is in relation to the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel and the decisions about the correspondence in relation to the resignation of the two expert members of the panel, Ms Louise Cherry and Professor Barbara Novak. They resigned in protest and sent a resignation letter to the minister, Mr Barnett, last year about the appalling handling of the panel and the process for the assessment of the Storm Bay marine farm sites and the massive expansion of the fish farm industry into Storm Bay. We sought information about the correspondence relating to their letters of resignation because the minister was not upfront about that process and was not upfront about the resignation, basically denied there was anything to see.

What we got was redacted information for no reason other than it was going to cause a stench for the Government because of their mishandling of those two expert witnesses. The circumstances leading up to them resigning in protest, which clearly related to not being heard, not being treated seriously as experts in their field, as all of that information has been removed from the public eye. We are left to fill in the blanks ourselves. We can only assume from the actions that have followed that the blanks provided to us, reflect poorly on the minister and his handling of the matter, otherwise there would be nothing to hide.

Given that the previous Labor-Greens government dealt with right to information requests so utterly differently, kept them at arms-length from ministers and did not stonewall on people's ability because there was no hiding from having an internal review, it also meant that there was every prospect for a person to seek external review through the Ombudsman's office.

Why are we here today? What has changed? What has changed fundamentally is the work. I put on the public record the great work of Roland Browne from Gun Control Australia regarding the secret negotiations that were made between the previous police minister, Rene Hidding, members of the firearm and shooters' lobbies around the Liberals' firearm policy commitments that were made to that community before the 2018 March state election.

As we know because of the public outrage that followed when the Greens made that information available to the Tasmanian community only days before the state election when it was provided to us by a member of that stakeholder group, people were deeply concerned and terribly distressed that the Liberal Government was negotiating secret deals to weaken Tasmania's firearms laws, and the Premier declared in media interviews around the 2018 state election that his police minister had given him advice that the Liberal Party's election policy to water down the state's gun laws did not breach the National Firearms Agreement.

Gun Control Australia's Mr Roland Browne and others sought release of that information under the Right to Information Act. The advice was expected to make interesting reading when, for example, the Government proposed 10-year gun licences, even though the National Firearms Agreement had set a five-year maximum. On the face of it, it was clearly the case that the Liberals' gun policy was in breach of the National Firearms Agreement. Gun Control Australia sought to get evidence of the advice that had been provided to the Premier and in an April 2018 decision, the Premier's delegate made reference to some communications, apparently, about the advice and refused to release that information under the Right to Information Act.

Gun Control Australia then took that decision to the Supreme Court and challenged it with Justice Brett on 8 February 2019. Justice Brett set aside the Premier's decision and sent it back to the Premier to make a decision in accordance with the law. The Supreme Court found that the Premier had not acted according to the Right to Information Act -

Ms O'Connor - Shock!

Dr WOODRUFF - Yes, what a surprise - and the Premier had been entirely deceptive in his application of that.

Since then, the Premier appeared to have changed course after that decision by the Supreme Court, and on 12 March he asserted that the advice was given in the context of an election policy and was not part of the official business of government. What a disgrace. Clearly, it was the police minister acting in his role as the police minister who met with stakeholders - people from the shooting community, the TFGA and a number of other groups. He met with them in his capacity as police minister, but the Premier had the gall to try to suggest it was somehow outside the operation of the Right to Information Act because it was a Liberal Party policy matter and not a government policy matter. Well, that just does not wash, Madam Speaker, and it did not wash with Justice Brett from the Supreme Court.

In all of that information, there was never any written documentation that was provided about communication between the police minister and the Premier with advice from the police about whether the firearms policy of the Liberals would breach the National Firearms Agreement. Since then, we know, and the Hansard records from the Firearms committee, that Firearms Services and police did not, in fact, provide advice to say that the Liberals' firearms policy did not breach the National Firearms Agreement.

Last year the Premier said that they did. He said that the police minister had received advice from the police that it did not breach the act, yet we found from the police in the Firearms committee hearings that that is not true. What else can we conclude from this? The Premier said that he had been given that advice from the police minister. Maybe he had been given a 'You'll be right, it's fine', and maybe that is what he considers to be advice.

Ms O'Connor - A nod and a wink.

Dr WOODRUFF - It is pretty shabby when we are talking about weakening the state's firearms laws that the Premier is happy to get a wink and a nod from the police minister to say, 'Yes, it'll be right, I've got it sorted, there's no problems with this.' Either the Premier was not honest or he did not bother to pay attention to the detail about the firearms laws and whether they were going to breach the National Firearms Agreement. It is an outrage to Tasmanians that a Premier would take such a serious matter so lightly and would not inquire and want to see written evidence about it. That is a stain on this Premier. This information must continue to come out to the Tasmanian community to understand that Will Hodgman as Premier of Tasmania was prepared to do anything to buy an election, including doing secret deals with the firearms lobby about weakening the state's laws that were never made available by the Liberal Party to the Tasmanian people.

This is far from a digression, because this goes to the heart of what the Right to Information Act needs to be providing. The Right to Information Act is there as the mechanism for Tasmanians to investigate the actions and decisions of ministers and premiers about issues that may be small to some but very significant to others. It covers everything from how the expressions of interest and tendering process is conducted in our Wilderness World Heritage Area to whether the Liberal Party is misusing the office of minister to trade away the safety of Tasmanians and weaken gun laws simply to get a few more votes in the rural community to buy a state election.

These are important issues. The only way we can be confident of honesty and transparency in government is if a Right to Information Act gives people the opportunity to have decisions reviewed, have the proper internal review processes and the external review processes by an independent body, and in Tasmania that is the Ombudsman.

We strongly support the changes in this amendment to the Right to Information Act. We also foreshadow that we have a number of amendments to make. These amendments go to ensuring that journalists, people who are the custodians of truth and who seek to bring things to public light and who do so in the public interest, these people who are in the practice of editing or recording for media reports to providing news and scrutinising, holding the government to account, holding the actions of politicians and members of Cabinet to account on behalf of all Tasmanians, have proper access to information that has been produced in the process of decisions being made. I foreshadow that we will seek to go into Committee to table those amendments at a later date.

I finish by saying how important it is to have an open and accountable government. Given the changing landscape of media reporting and news, now more than ever it is important to be able to challenge people in positions of authority - leaders, politicians and especially government ministers - and to give people in the community confidence that if they doubt the actions of a minister, that they should be able to inquire. The first thing they would obviously do would be to pick up the phone or write an email to the minister's office. You do not jump to an RTI.

In the case of this Government, unfortunately people do go straight to RTIs because often it is a total waste of time trying to get responses to letters. I have members of the public who contact my office saying they have tried to ask reasonable questions and find things out but they have to resort to a right to information process and could we put one in on their behalf. These things should be sorted out by much more simpler means than a right to information request. We should not have to tie up the machinery of an RTI section in a department for simple answers to questions that should be provided as a course of everyday business by a minister's office. If the Government wanted to do one thing to improve the Right to Information Act and its application, it would be do not leave people in the situation where they need to put in an RTI request. Just provide the information.

Ms O'Connor - Active disclosure.

Dr WOODRUFF - That is right. Make it available. Put it on the website. The more ministers withhold information, the more people need to get reams of information and it becomes a burden because you are not really sure what people are hiding. The scope can sometimes be wider than it needs to be, simply to make sure that you can get access to how the decision was made and to the correspondence around that with the relevant parties.

I look forward to the discussions from other members on our amendment in Committee and we are very pleased to support the bill as it is.