CIVIL LIABILITY (DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION) AMENDMENT BILL

Wednesday 15 October, 2014

 I rise to consider supporting the bill with the amendments suggested by the deputy leader. The bill goes to the heart of transparency, as we have heard, and certainly transparency is extremely important within the government and the public sector. Lack of transparency results in distrust of our system, and that is not a good thing.

 I rise to consider supporting the bill with the amendments suggested by the deputy leader. The bill goes to the heart of transparency, as we have heard, and certainly transparency is extremely important within the government and the public sector. Lack of transparency results in distrust of our system, and that is not a good thing.

As the deputy leader has alluded to, the bill has a number of defects at this stage. As we have heard, there seems to be an apparent fear of being sued by members of the public service. We have heard from the Attorney that the FOI Act is well utilised; in fact, in his recent submission he made mention that 12,328 applications were made to government agencies in 2011-12 alone, of which 85 per cent of information was released in full or in part. The question is: if so many applications have been made, why then have we not had any examples, any evidence, of issues where this sort of thing has arisen? If they are apparent, where is the detail on that? I reiterate the words of the deputy speaker: we would seek that.

Secondly, blanket immunity certainly has issues, as the deputy leader alluded to. I think blanket immunity in this type of circumstance can be dangerous and needs to be narrowed. Thirdly and consequently, if that complete blanket protection to liability is given, that is an issue, and we have to think about the consequences that that may have. Fourthly, I would encourage the government to really review whether they want this to pass in its current form. As the deputy mentioned, it can be a double-edged sword. Whilst it may seem like a good idea at the moment, they should really think about the true consequences that it may have.

I am empathetic to the bill, however, because it is important to protect good public servants who are doing their proper jobs performing their duties to the best of their abilities within the scope of their employment. They should not fear that they will be sued in the ordinary course of their duties if they are doing their job properly, but again I seek details of the complaints that seem to be coming from the government. On behalf of members on this side of the chamber, I seek evidence that they live in fear. We want to see evidence that they are asking for more protection and why that is. We think that the protection, as the deputy alluded to, should be limited to defamation and breach of confidence.

We have heard how section 50 of the Freedom of Information Act protects public servants from defamation and breach of confidence when dealing with FOIs, and I will lead the gallant crusade from this part of the chamber to amend part of the Freedom of Information Act at a time in the future, leading on from the recommendations of the SA ombudsman at the time, Richard Bingham, in his report.

In his audit, it was revealed that, amongst other things, agencies certainly are struggling to cope with the volume and the complexity of the requests, and it is apparent that some agencies are sometimes not meeting time constraints. I have to say that that has been a frustration of mine, as one of the newer members here, when lodging some freedom of information applications.

There are problems with the application of the public interest test and exemptions under the act. There are complaints within offices of delaying of the freedom of information requests. There was a concern that undue influence within certain offices is an issue. There was also some lack of direction by management surrounding the act and an issue concerning exempt documents—what they are and whether they are released. The SA ombudsman at the time highlighted those issues, which we will be taking up down the track.

I would encourage the government to support a narrower scope, in line with the deputy leader's amendment. I think restricting the scope of protection for public servants to defamation and breach of confidence is much more appropriate. We also heard from the deputy in regard to the position interstate, and it was identified that in fact only Tasmania and New South Wales offer protection against civil liability. However, it is limited to defamation and breach of confidence, and that is something I encourage the government to take into consideration.

A number of questions remain to be answered here, and I hope that the Attorney, in all his wisdom, takes the time to consider these and address them and clear them up before the bill comes to a vote. Blanket immunity has issues. I would like to see some details on the apparent fear amongst some of the public servants. I would like to see the Attorney address the concerns I have raised regarding blanket protection and also the future implications it may have. In saying that, with the good amendments the deputy leader has suggested, I commend the bill to the house.