THE QUEENSLAND Government has proposed “Right to Information” legislation in place of existing freedom of information laws, after accepting almost all recommendations from a report evocating an overhaul of the system.
The changes come as a result of Dr David Solomon’s report to Queensland Premier Anna Bligh last week. In it the Government offers full or part support for 139 of the 141 recommendations. “Our response to the recommendations will form the basis of our new Right to Information legislation,” said Bligh.
Solomon, a member of the Australian Law Reform Commission, tabled the report with Dominic McGann, a partner at McCullough Robertson, and barrister Simone Webbe. Together, the panel proposed a new model for the release of government information, opting for more structured and consistent discharge of information.
The Government said the proposed changes will completely revamp existing laws, and make access to information “quicker and easier” for the public. Part of this will involve reducing the waiting time for complete release of cabinet documents which will soon be the lowest in the country — cut from 30 to 20 years.
Another drastic change will see the Government removing the cabinet exemption after 10 years, “so access to specific information will be available on application in line with the public inteest test,” said Bligh.
The Government will also be redrafting the cabinet exemption in order to limit the number of documents that can be caught under it.
The previous wording, which was a “catch all” provision, had been criticised on the basis that it was open to abuse by ministers. The new, more narrow, version will apply only to documents deliberately created for the purpose of cabinet discussions, and McGann suggested that this would reduce the extent to which it can be wrongly taken advantage of. “Put it this way. You will not be able to do what you could previously have done,” he said.
Other recommendations include the removal of exemptions relating to particular government business enterprises, meaning that government-owned corporations may be asked to further detail their transparency.
McGann said the Government was working to strike a balance on how the changes would impact government-owned corporations (GOCs). “What they’re basically indicating is that whereas we would say ‘You’re automatically covered and then you need to run the gauntlet of the ordinary exemptions’, the Government is moving that marker slightly to say, ‘Well you are covered, but you will be exempt if you do particular activities’,” he said.
Overall, McGann commends the government’s efforts on the changes, particularly the premier’s actions in showing “a genuine willingness and a genuine intention to address the issue”.
The Government said it would develop its new Right to Information Bill and Privacy Bill for consultative release by December.