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Secrecy laws under scrutiny: ALRC
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Secrecy laws under scrutiny: ALRC

The Australian Law Reform Commission yesterday recommended a comprehensive overhaul of the country's secrecy laws.

The Australian Law Reform Commission yesterday recommended a comprehensive overhaul  of the country's secrecy laws. 

In a discussion paper released yesterday, the ALRC seeks community feedback on its current inquiry into federal secrecy laws, which outlines 65 proposals for reform.

The government's investigation into secrecy laws gathered momentum in August last year, when Attorney General Robert McClelland called for an inquiry into them. "We are committed to open and accountable government and want to ensure that Commonwealth information is only protected where there is a legitimate reason for doing so," he said. 

While secrecy around national security and sensitive personal information is "appropriate and unsurprising", the ALRC's "mapping" of the federal statute book "has identified 507 secrecy provisions scattered across 175 pieces of legislation, including 358 distinct secrecy offences carrying a wide variety of criminal penalties". 

"That’s more reflective of the old culture of secrecy than the current preference for openness," ALRC president Professor David Weisbrot said.

“Information handling, management and protection by the Commonwealth should be seen as part of a continuum. At the open government end, there’s information that should be disclosed as a matter of course. Most departments and agencies now maintain websites that provide an enormous amount of information. 

"This is desirable, both in the interests of promoting open and accountable government, as well as being efficient—the more information that’s publicly available, the fewer requests, questions and FOI applications departmental officers have to handle," said Weisbrot.

The system should be more open and "pro-disclosure culture", ALRC commissioner in charge of the inquiry, Professor Rosalind Croucher said. 

"The ALRC proposes a substantial decrease in the use of criminal sanctions - limiting prosecutions to those unauthorised disclosures in which it is alleged that harm has been caused, or was likely to be caused, to a compelling public interest. 

"These include harm to: national security, defence or international relations; law enforcement operations; the physical safety of a person; or public health," she said. 

The new reforms are aiming to achieve more clarity for public servants and those who handle Commonwealth information, the ALRC said yesterday. 

The Attorney-General will be handed the final report and recommendations in the inquiry at the end of October. 

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