FREEDOM OF INFORMATION (OFFENCES) AMENDMENT BILL

Thursday 19 March, 2015

Mr TARZIA (Hartley) (10:33): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This is a bill that will make it illegal for a government minister or their staff from giving improper directions or influence to a government agency that has been served with a freedom of information request. The bill amends part 2 of the act and makes it an offence for a person to give improper directions or influence with respect of an agency's decision to release documents regarding a freedom of information application. This bill will also make it an offence for an accredited FOI officer if they fail to report to the Office for Public Integrity a suspicion that an improper direction or improper influence was given.

Mr TARZIA (Hartley) (10:33): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This is a bill that will make it illegal for a government minister or their staff from giving improper directions or influence to a government agency that has been served with a freedom of information request. The bill amends part 2 of the act and makes it an offence for a person to give improper directions or influence with respect of an agency's decision to release documents regarding a freedom of information application. This bill will also make it an offence for an accredited FOI officer if they fail to report to the Office for Public Integrity a suspicion that an improper direction or improper influence was given.

The necessity of this bill comes from former ombudsman Richard Bingham's report which he tabled in the parliament last year—I believe last June. Mr Bingham was scathing to say the least of the way the current freedom of information system operates and suggested many improvements.

This bill is the result of recommendation 26 of Mr Bingham's report, which recommended, as a matter of urgency, that the act should create offences of improperly directing or influencing a decision or determination under the act, which should be uniform across all government agencies and which codifies requirements for common principles. One would think they would be common principles of government: accountable government, responsible government, transparent government, and communications between ministerial offices and agency FOI officers in relation to all applications. As the act stands currently, there is no penalty for ministers and their staff who unduly influence the release of important documents that have been requested in the public interest.

In May Mr Bingham said that the Ombudsman had completed an audit of 12 government agencies during the year and made a number of findings. Some of his feedback is quite scathing. For example, I note that he says:

It is common practice across all the agencies to provide copies of FOI applications' determinations, draft or otherwise, and documents to their minister to get the green light prior to finalisation of access requests. While the act permits a minister to direct their agencies' determination, evidence provided to the audit strongly suggests that ministerial or political influence is brought to bear on agencies' FOI officers.

And he goes on. More detail regarding allegations of political interference is set out in the Ombudsman's report.

The Ombudsman is an independent officer appointed by this government. He does not have political interests I would not have thought: he is an independent officer doing an independent job. It seems that at the moment the Attorney is more interested in convincing his cabinet colleagues that he should make himself part of the bench rather than providing good, open and accountable government to the people of South Australia.

This government wants to talk about a bold vision, a bold legislative setting. I do not always listen to Fresh FM, but I heard the son of a former member for Hartley on the radio, and he interviewed the Premier. I was listening and the Premier said that if he hears a good idea he will adopt it. Only the bubonic plague was a bigger destroyer of jobs and investment across the world than this 13-year-old government. Only the bubonic plague has destroyed more investment and jobs than has this government. It is about accountability.

Members interjecting:

Mr TARZIA: It is from Paul Keating. I am humble enough that, if I see a good line, be it federal or state, I am not afraid to quote good ideas or good lines from the other side. That is what I am asking as a humble servant of the parliament.

The Hon. T.R. Kenyon interjecting:

Mr TARZIA: What was that, he was a good Catholic, member for Newland—is that what you said?

The Hon. T.R. Kenyon interjecting:

Mr TARZIA: I am humble enough to spot good ideas. That is what this is: this is a good idea that an independent officer, the Ombudsman, has made. He has made 33 recommendations (33 obviously has many connotations). But 33 recommendations, and how many has this government adopted? How many recommendations has it adopted? Zero! They have adopted zero!

In all seriousness, we are becoming the laughing-stock of our interstate colleagues, of the profession and of other parliaments around the world that are improving the FOI system. We saw recently the toil and the tussle that even some of our best journalists go through in relation to discovery. I remember there was an article by Daniel Wills regarding freedom of information requests in relation to SA Water. Even our best journalists have covered, and discovered the government's aversion to transparency, in a series of articles last year.

This bill is a test for the government. Is it serious about providing accountability to government, restoring trust with the community about their activities? There are scathing recommendations by an independent officer, and it is completely arrogant for the government to simply ignore them. I plead with the government, like I did last year, in this private member's bill. I urged the Minister for Regional Development and also urged the Minister for Investment and Trade to support the bill, to use their independence. They have a second bite at this cherry.

I also ask members of the government to support the two main amendments that I am making: first, to make it an offence for a person to give improper directions or influence in respect of an agency's decision regarding an FOI application to have access to a document, and, second, to make it an offence if an accredited FOI officer fails to report to the Office for Public Integrity a suspicion that such a direction has been given.

Since there have been 33 recommendations made by the Ombudsman, in order to give the government more credibility, I think it should have the courage, the honesty and the transparency to at least put some of these independent recommendations into law. It is only accountable and right to do so.

One day, hopefully in the not too distant future, we may be in government. We on this side of the chamber may be in government. I can understand why the government is perhaps a bit averse to putting these amendments in, but let me say this: these rules will certainly still stand for us. That is what it is about. Find a good idea; if it’s a good idea, then run with it. We are here to do a job. We are here to be a transparent parliament, a transparent government.

An honourable member interjecting:

Mr TARZIA: What have you got to hide? Exactly right. What have you got to hide? With those remarks, I commend this bill to the house and look forward to discussing it at length with the Attorney and his government and anyone else who is interested.