Thursday, 11 December 2008

Freedom of Information Act vs Commonwealth secrecy laws - who wins?

The Federal Attorney-General has asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to riddle him a riddle as it reviews Australia's secrecy laws:

I, ROBERT McCLELLAND, Attorney-General of Australia, having regard to:
the desirability of having comprehensive, consistent and workable laws and
practices in relation to the protection of Commonwealth information;
the increased need to share such information within and between governments
and with the private sector;
the importance of balancing the need to protect Commonwealth information and
the public interest in an open and accountable system of government; and
previous reports (including previous reports of the Commission) that have
identified the need for reform in this area.

And here is the riddle:

1–1 In light of freedom of information laws and other modern moves towards greater openness and accountability on the one hand, and the current international security environment on the other, are secrecy laws still relevant and necessary?
Is a statutory duty on Commonwealth officers not to disclose information necessary or desirable?
Are general law obligations sufficient and appropriate ways by which the disclosure of Commonwealth information may be regulated?
1–2 Do federal secrecy provisions inhibit unduly the sharing of information within and between law enforcement agencies, governments, and between governments and the private sector?........................
Given that the Freedom of Information Act 1982(Cth) promotes open and accountable government, and secrecy provisions protect Commonwealth information, what should be the relationship between these two regimes?

The answer to these questions (due in October 2009) is of more than passing interest to the mainstream media, bloggers, current or former public servants and whistleblowers generally, as it relates to penalties under the Commonwealth Crimes Act and Criminal Code and intends to consider more widely than just taxation secrecy and disclosure provisions.

Given the inherent tension between a government's desire for secrecy, the democratic need for transparent governance, public interest and personal privacy (as well as the fact that the Rudd Government is not composed of true believers and could often be mistaken for the Liberal Party on some issues) this review and government's response need watching.

Review of Secrecy Laws issues paper can be found here.
Register an interest in receiving ALRC alerts and consultation papers here.

Should you wish to give your own views on the subject, submissions should be sent to:
The Executive Director
Australian Law Reform Commission
GPO Box 3708
Submissions may also be made using the online form on the ALRC's homepage:
The closing date for submissions in response to IP 34 is 19 February 2009.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good Pickup. Departmental inquiries can be darned tricky to discover.

Actually, FOI would be trivial if metadata was maintained by document authors, because the gov could just open all not-marked-secret documents up to Google, rather than governments trawl through documents when requested, and conveniently classify them after the FOI. I suppose that's going to be the core of what I'll submit.

The only tricky bit is email, but there is a pretty easy way to solve that as well.