FOI follies prove the powerful hate disclosure

Release date: 22/12/2014

Tony Sheldon

Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 2014


TWU National Secretary Tony Sheldon writes in the SMH on how the Abbott government’s changes to the Freedom of Information Act threaten to deprive the public of information it has a right to know.

In opposition, Tony Abbott vowed a government led by him would be open and transparent. He told the Australian public in his Real Solutions booklet he would "restore accountability and improve transparency measures to be more accountable to you".

Last month, the Prime Minister told the party faithful "from Menzies to Fraser to Howard and to the current government, the Liberal Party has been the party that gives more freedom".

In reality what we are seeing from this government is the opposite, amounting to yet another broken promise.

When it comes to accountability and transparency the Freedom of Information Act is a powerful tool for the public. But it is under attack. The Abbott government has a bill before the Parliament that seeks to undermine and weaken the act.

The bill would abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, an independent final place of appeal for those seeking documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

In anticipation of tearing down the office, the government has stripped it of its funding – $10.2 million over four years. The office faces the bizarre situation of still being in existence but with no money.

The Information Commissioner has now been forced to work from home until the bill is debated, sometime next year. Appeals to the office cost nothing but the government wants to charge people to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal - this will cost $861, plus legal advice and representation charges.

This is a blatant attack on the right to information now enjoyed by Australians.

The media has always been a strong supporter of the Freedom of Information Act. Documents released under the legislation to Fairfax Media show the government delivered its budget fully aware its spending cuts would hit poorer households much harder than wealthier ones.

Last week (9 December 2014) the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article based on information provided by my union showing the Abbott government was refusing to release documents detailing the cost and purpose of overseas travel by Coalition ministers, claiming they could "cause damage to Australia's international relations" if made public.

The following day (10 December 2014) the newspaper ran an editorial article questioning my union's motivations for seeking access to this information. The article concluded the government had refused the information because it was "vexatious and political". Since the government already publishes travel expenses incurred by MPs every six months the article concludes that: "the main point, it would appear, is point-scoring".

This analysis raises a number of issues.

Firstly, Freedom of Information requests cannot be refused on the grounds that they are politically motivated. Thankfully we live in an open, democratic society that values alternative political viewpoints and where laws cannot be construed to exclude those viewpoints. An applicant can be deemed to be vexatious if they are abusing the process by, for example, flooding a government department with requests. The Transport Workers' Union has never been accused of this.

Secondly, previous requests the Transport Workers' Union has made for documents on ministerial travel have uncovered evidence of excess. A $30,000 trip by Education Minister Christopher Pyne to London and Rome in April showed he spent $1352 for one day's stay at the Corinthia Hotel and spent over $2000 for VIP services at Heathrow Airport. The minister's wife accompanied him on the trip despite the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff Peta Credlin in her letter approving the trip acknowledging it did not comply with government guidelines on overseas trips.

Thirdly, the six-monthly register released by the government on MP's travel expenses supplies little information. In the case of Pyne's trip it gives only the overall $30,000 spend but gives no breakdown. We believe the public has a right to this information.

Some countries are making greater efforts at being more open. In Britain every minister, political staffer and senior public servant must publish details of meetings with external organisations, gifts (given and received), hospitality and overseas travel on a quarterly basis.

At a time when the Abbott government is trying to impose a tax on GP visits, burden university students with huge debts and gut funding to schools, hospitals and indigenous programmes, the government must be held to account on its spending.

Mr Abbott promised openness before he came to government. His failure in this regard would suggest either his word is no good or that his government has something to hide. It is time that he now came clean on this.

Read this article on the Sydney Morning Herald website.

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