Thursday 30 October, 2014

Mr TARZIA (Hartley) (10:32): Obtained leave and introduced a bill for an act to amend the Freedom of Information Act 1991. Read a first time.

Second Reading

Mr TARZIA (Hartley) (10:33): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill will make it illegal for a government minister or their staff to give improper directions or influence to a government agency that has been served with a freedom of information request. The bill will amend part 3 of the act and make it an offence for a person to give improper directions or influence with respect to an agency's decision to release documents regarding a freedom of information application. It will also make it an offence for an accredited FOI officer to fail to report to the Office for Public Integrity a suspicion that an improper direction or an improper influence was given.

We have seen Mr Bingham's recent report and audit of state government departments' implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 1991, made in May, and it is quite a harsh report. It is a lashing report. It goes into detail and lashes out at the government and the poor current state of our FOI processes. I draw on one quote where he says:

Evidence provided to the audit strongly suggests that ministerial and political interference is brought to bear on agencies' FOI officers and that FOI officers may have been pressured to change the determination in particular instances.

He goes into many details about the current state of play in regard to the FOI system. For example, he says that most of the agencies are not coping with the volume and the complex nature of recent FOI requests. He says that six of the 12 agencies failed to determine over 50 per cent of access applications within the time frame required by the act. He says that most of the agencies do not even understand how to apply the exemptions and the public interest test under the act.

He says that the agency's chief executives are not providing FOI or information disclosure leadership, and in nine out of the 12 agencies there is no directive at all, according to him, from the chief executive, senior management or the minister about the operation or implementation of the act.

Mrs Vlahos interjecting:

Mr TARZIA: I am very passionate. I very passionate about the putrid, sordid undercurrent of secrecy that this government leads and has led for over 12 years. We all know, without giving reference to any other debate in the house, that recently a bill was introduced into this place in response to a report by the independent commissioner for the ICAC after a matter of weeks since that report was tabled. Yet, here, the Ombudsman made this audit of state government department implementation of the FOI Act in May 2014. He made 33 recommendations, and how many has the Attorney codified or tried to legislate in this house? Not enough; it is an absolute shame.

Members interjecting:

Mr TARZIA: Zero. Why, Mr Speaker? Because it is not very sexy for the Attorney.

Mrs Vlahos interjecting:

The SPEAKER: The member for Taylor is called to order.

Mr TARZIA: Exposing the undercurrent of secrecy is not sexy to the Attorney, I would suggest. This bill is a result of one of many good recommendations in Mr Bingham's report, namely, recommendation 26, where he 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, which codifies requirements for accountability and transparent communication between ministerial offices and FOI offices in relation to all applications.

We saw a brilliant case of investigative journalism this week in The Advertiser, whereby a journalist had to go to great lengths to obtain information that should have been released into the public forum. It is unreasonable for that to occur as it did. As the act currently stands, there is no current penalty for ministers and their staff if they unduly influence the release of important documents that have been requested in the public interest. You have to ask the question, Mr Speaker: why after a number of months of this report being tabled has the government not acted on this audit and this urgent and important recommendation, amongst the others, of course? The truth is that they do not want to be held accountable. This is the most secretive and unaccountable government in Australia.

This is not illustrated anywhere better than in the articles in The Advertiser this week, where an ESCOSA freedom of information officer was overruled by the Acting Ombudsman, because Paul Kerin's letter was in the public interest. I do not know the details of the administrative process that this particular application from The Advertiser went through to determine if the sort of interference this bill criminalises occurred, but I do know that this bill will help prevent this sort of shabby and drawn-out process from occurring in the future and that this government is trying to hide.

This bill is a test for the government. Are they fair dinkum about providing accountability to government, about providing accountability to the people of South Australia and restoring trust with the community about their activities? If you have nothing to hide, then support this bill. Are we going to see the same deception and lethargy that we have seen for over a decade? I hope not. I encourage both Independents—this is a test to show us your independence. I encourage the Independents on the crossbenches, the Minister for Regional Development and the Minister for Trade and Investment, to seriously consider the merits of this bill and support them. I commend it to the house.