Winds of accountability blow through FOI corridors
THAT unusual noise our state bureaucrats have had to put up with this week is the sweet rushing sound of fresh air of imminent change.
All the signs are that Queensland's public service is in for some of the most sweeping changes to its culture and practices since Labor took government a decade ago this week.
If the Government's rhetoric is to be believed, the ways in which Queenslanders are able to scrutinise how their state is run, and for whose benefit, are in for some dramatic improvement.
Remarkably, given the past entrenched attitude of the Cabinet in which she has sat for 10 years, Premier Anna Bligh appears set to wave goodbye to the days of a secretive bureaucracy obsessed with process.
Nine months after becoming Premier, her hitherto cautious progress on reform has broken into a gallop.
If she has her way, government-owned businesses will come under much more scrutiny; the 30-year rule governing the release of Cabinet material will be cut to 10 years; and accessing government information generally will cease being a war of attrition.
In the process, Queenslanders will witness an interesting test of the extent of Bligh's power within Government.
This week she emerged from a two-hour Cabinet debate on proposed root-and-branch FOI reforms to declare she was happy to adopt the recommendations of David Solomon, who had been appointed to review the process.
The theme running through Solomon's 141 recommendations, which add up to completely new law, is that the Government should stop spending vast amounts of time and effort holding back information and move to doing all it can to push information out.
In Bligh's words, this amounts to a complete rethink of the architecture of gathering, storing and releasing government information.
It will even have a new name: the Right to Information.
"The Queensland public is the source of the power and legitimacy of the Queensland Government and it is absolutely imperative that the public is well-informed about the operations of government and has fair and reasonable access to the information that governments hold," Ms Bligh said.
It was time, she said, to "recommit" to the spirit of FOI.
As if to reinforce that change in thinking, Bligh and her Director-General, Ken Smith, this week also eased out some key government mandarins who had tended to have a major influence on the culture and behaviour of the Queensland bureaucracy, where adherence to process has come to be more valued than achieving results.
Suddenly a Government, whose members routinely abused FOI law by wheeling trolley-loads of documents into Cabinet, appears ready for accountability.
Within days of becoming Premier last September, Bligh appointed barrister and former Courier-Mail journalist David Solomon to head a review into the FOI laws, saying she was concerned about the growth in government culture that assumed any document considered by Cabinet should be kept secret.
She would have had a fair idea what this former Electoral and Administrative Review Commission chairman would produce.
"History in Queensland, as in many other jurisdictions, has proved unambiguously that there is little point legislating for access to information if there is no ongoing political will to support its effects," his report states.
"The corresponding public sector cultural responses in administration of FOI inevitably move to crush the original promise of open government and, with it, accountability."
Bligh has responded by saying she is a champion of openness.
This, of course, has been said before.
Her predecessor, Peter Beattie, often observed with a straight face that his government was the most accountable in the country while introducing changes that sapped the power of the original legislation, and his ministers and public servants sniggered about using "Freedom from Information".
But, knowing she headed a Government with a record of concealment so large that The Courier-Mail could easily compile a list of 40 secrets it was keeping from the public, Bligh felt compelled to act.
According to Solomon, if Bligh adopts his ideas Queensland will have some of the best right-to-information laws in the world.
Certainly, the review has been met with almost universal acclaim from lawyers and others frustrated with the current FOI regime in this state and nationally.
"Overall, this is good, positive stuff, not just for Queensland but for consideration elsewhere should government leaders show interest in reform," NSW policy consultant Peter Timmins wrote on his well-regarded FOI blog this week.
Solomon has tried to replace complexity with clarity.
Cabinet exemptions under the new law will be limited to three document categories: Estimates briefs, Question Time briefs and briefing books for incoming ministers.
Confronted with a request for documents, officers would apply a simple public-interest test: Grant access unless its disclosure, on balance, would be contrary to the public interest.
The Premier says her Cabinet colleagues have given Solomon's proposals a "very positive response", although some apparently have warned they may have to see how the changes affect their departments.
Translated, that means such government-owned enterprises as Energex and Queensland Rail will get the chance to argue their case to remain exempt from FOI.
Bligh has promised a Government response in two months, with a Bill expected to be debated and passed in Parliament within a year.
She has also pledged not to use the Rudd Government's yet-to-be-completed review of federal FOI law to slow the pace of reform in Queensland.
"I think it is important we move on them as quickly as is reasonably possible and work to get them right," she said.
"This is part of a modern Queensland and, while these things always have some risk to government, in my view it is time for us to take the next step into openness."
Timmins would like her to go a step further by immediately tackling the culture of secrecy.
"It would be great to see an administrative direction from her in the meantime that agencies are to err on the side of disclosure unless real harm to essential public interests are likely from disclosure," he said.
The many bureaucrats who do want change would have been encouraged by what Bligh said about the review.
"This document represents a blueprint that could make Queensland the most open government in Australia," she said.
"I think moving from a framework which has, as the report's authors described it, operated on a basis of people having to pull information out of the system to one where the system proactively pushes information out into the public arena as often as possible is a desirable way forward."
The one quibble she seems to have with the review is its proposal to bring private organisations that have dealings with government into the RTI net.
That would include private schools, charities and certain companies.
"I have an obligation to talk to those organisations before adopting those recommendations," Bligh said.
"But, by and large, the other recommendations ... have merit and the Government will, ultimately, pick them up."
Real change, of course, is dependent on a Government that does not automatically assume that its interest and the public interest are one and the same.
That is when Bligh's real political test will come.