JOE LUDWIG, January 21, 2010

As the minister responsible for information policy, I welcome public scrutiny of government activity. Many governments around the world are embracing a new era of government openness.

US President Barack Obama, on his first day in office last January, told agency heads he intended to create an unprecedented level of openness in government through transparency, participation and collaboration. In December, his administration released a progress report and a directive on open government, setting out what agencies have to do to make this happen. Otherwise, as the progress report states, the American people would continue to experience a culture of government secrecy, “where information is locked up, taxpayer dollars disappear without a trace, and lobbyists wield undue influence”.

The Australian public also rightly demands transparent government. That’s why the Rudd Government promised at the election to “restore trust and integrity in the use of Commonwealth Government information, promoting a pro-disclosure culture and protecting the public interest through genuine reform”. We’re working hard to fulfil these commitments.

The Australian Government is accountable to the public every day, not just every few years at the ballot box. The way to make that accountability meaningful is to give Australians access to government information so they can assess and engage with government as well as scrutinise the activities of government themselves.

The information held by governments is a national resource to be managed in the public interest. Privacy and security reasons mean some information remains protected. But relevant information should be put online for the public to access, use and share.

Moreover, we’re keen to hear the public’s views. Public discussion of government activity facilitates good decision-making and is fundamental to a healthy democracy. Under the Howard government these pillars of democracy were at best ignored and at worst actively undermined. The Rudd Government has significantly improved government transparency. More types of government information are routinely published. With Operation Sunlight we introduced a more transparent system of government accounting, budgeting and reporting.

We placed online information detailing claims for travel allowances and expenses for senators, members and former parliamentarians, and the airline loyalty points they accrued and used for domestic travel. We made parliamentarians’ overseas study travel reports publicly accessible on the website of the Department of Finance and Deregulation (Finance). This year we’ll begin to deliver on our commitment to publish online information detailing the expenditure on all parliamentary entitlements administered by Finance.

We’ve instituted an annual report covering parliamentarians’ staff, and we established the online Register of Lobbyists so that the public and parliamentarians can see what interests a lobbyist represents. The next hurdle is to complete our overhaul of the federal Freedom of Information (FoI) laws. Our reforms will strengthen Australia’s FoI laws so they reflect the original intent of the Act: to extend as far as possible the right of the Australian community to access Commonwealth Government information. This is something the Howard government never did.

We’ve already demonstrated our commitment to FoI by abolishing conclusive certificates, which had been used by successive governments to avoid external review of decisions not to release documents. In November, two FoI bills were introduced into parliament. They provide for the biggest overhaul of the FoI Act since its 1982 enactment. This year I’m going to throw my energies into getting these critical bills passed through the Senate. This is going to be tough going, even though the latest FoI annual report clearly shows our federal FoI laws are in need of reform.

The new bills will form the framework for a pro-disclosure culture around government information. They create a publication scheme requiring agencies to actively consider what information they have, which can and should be made publicly available.

Information that isn’t already published will be easier to access. The bills abolish fees for lodging FoI applications and reduce fees for decision-making. In addition, once an agency hands out information to an FoI applicant, that information will generally have to be made available to the wider public within 10 days.

What’s more, if an agency refuses to disclose information in response to an FoI request then an applicant will be able to get the decision reviewed by the Information Commissioner — an independent statutory office holder — free of charge.

When it comes to government information, the future won’t be about concealment but disclosure; it won’t be about responding to requests, but about putting as much information as possible online as a matter of course. The Government 2.0 Taskforce has given us a mud map of where to next with its recommendations on using web 2.0 tools to make government information more open, accessible and reusable.

A changing attitude to information is just as the Australian public expects and deserves of a modern and flexible government in the digital age.

Joe Ludwig is cabinet secretary and Special Minister of State in the Rudd Government.

Source: theage.com.au