Strong leadership required if new FoI reforms are to work

5 November 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

On Monday morning Australia’s new Freedom of Information reforms were launched when the Australian Office of the Information Commissioner was officially opened in Canberra.

These reforms, along with legislation implemented in October last year, are set to revolutionise the way the 28-year-old law works and give effect to commitments made by former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, in the lead up to the 2007 election.

The office’s opening also confirmed Professor John McMillan as the Commonwealth’s first Information Commissioner.

Professor McMillan told The Sydney Morning Herald in an interview last month that the new reforms would ‘transform government,’ because they created a new emphasis on ‘pro-disclosure.’

Queensland Information Commissioner, Julie Kinross, agrees with McMillan’s sentiments for what the new reforms should bring, but says their implementation at a Federal level may not be as smooth as first thought, as the new Gillard Government is ‘un-tested.’

‘You need a very strong political leadership that really shows and tells the bureaucracy that this is how it expects and how it wants the public service to operate,’ Ms Kinross explains. ‘I don’t see that at a Commonwealth level at the moment because the government is new and un-tested.’

Ms Kinross says that the Commonwealth reforms package is not being led by a central, ‘powerful’ minister.

‘The Commonwealth reforms were driven by former Senator John Faulkner who has had for a very long period of time, an interest in reforming the processes of the Parliament and Government. But now former Senator Faulkner has gone to the backbenches and his reform program has been taken on by Brendan O’Connor who is not one of the Government’s most powerful ministers,’ Ms Kinross says.

‘The FoI reforms will effect every business process of government, information systems and information management across every portfolio. Many public servants will be thinking; ‘this doesn’t affect me.’ You need a senior government leader within the executive of government driving these reforms.’

While it is uncertain as to how the Prime Minister or Government will perform with the new reforms, Ms Kinross believes a positive sign that FoI reform could bring about a new era of transparency and openness in government was seen when Prime Minister Julia Gillard was education minister.

‘In her role as education minister, Ms Gillard showed the required leadership with the My Schools website, which was significant reform in openning up an area of information that would otherwise stay closed,’ Ms Kinross explains.

‘The Prime Minister showed leadership on reform and transparency in the face of pressures from certain areas of society. Yet her leadership and her government’s leadership are still not completely known regarding FoI reform as they are both new and un-teseted.’

Queensland’s FoI Act (known as the Right to Information Act) was reformed in July 2009 following a review by Dr David Solomon that was ordered by Anna Bligh when she became Premier in September 2007.

Since that review, which saw the Queensland Government support in full or in part 139 of the 141 recommendations (only two recommendations were not supported), Queensland has become the most open and accountable government in Australia.

‘In Queensland the reforms were led and driven by Premier Bligh. When she became Premier, she took to her first Cabinet meeting this idea of reviewing the FoI Act to make it more receptive and her motivations were, as I understand it, a genuine interest in seeing the democratic institutions operate in the way that they were intended to operate, coupled with a desire to reform the Queensland Public Service,’ Ms Kinross explains. 

FoI reforms in Queensland have been mandated in law and implemented through a ‘compliance’ approach whereby a requirement that department’s embrace open government and the implementation of the reforms, has been inserted into senior departmental staff’s performance agreements. This has been combined with Premier Bligh’s hands on approach to reform.

‘Therefore it sends a very strong message from the political leadership about what is required of the Public Service.

‘So you can have a ‘push model’ and you can have all the laws you like in the land, but unless there’s that leadership to make things happen, governments and the public service will find ways around the law,’ Ms Kinross says.

Ms Kinross also sees the official opening of the Australian Information Commissioner’s office as an opportunity for government itself to focus on reforming their information management systems, practices and policies.

‘I think we are at the beginning of a new era where emphasis is not so much on people getting access to information but where government itself is more focused on releasing information to the public through better information policies and management systems.

‘Unless they get all of those things right and have strong ministerial leadership as well, we won’t see the great push of information that we’re all expecting to see.’

Perrin Brown is a PhD Candidate at La Trobe University studying Australia’s Freedom of Information Law.