Freedom of Information

Second Reading - Freedom of Information Amendment Bill

30 August 2016

Mr WALSH (Murray Plains) — I rise to make a contribution on the Freedom of Information Amendment (Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner) Bill 2016. As the member for Malvern has already articulated in his contribution, the Liberal‑Nationals coalition will not be supporting this bill in its current format, and I believe it will have some very intense scrutiny in the upper house when it gets up there, including the desire to refer it off to a committee to give it a detailed analysis.

I listened with interest to the contribution of the member for Broadmeadows about how he believes this will speed up the process and stop duplication. From my experience — and a bit later I will talk about my personal experiences with freedom of information so far in this term of Parliament — I believe the system has been effectively thwarted and broken by this current government and by the current bureaucracy. It is effectively impossible to get any information under freedom of information out of this current government.

It would appear to me that, from the Premier down, it is ‘my way or the highway’. If you actually question something and you want some information about something, it is denied. There are all the excuses under the sun as to why that cannot happen. We once had a time I think in the Victorian government — whoever was in government — where the bureaucracy actually gave independent, frank and fearless advice. Well, I am afraid the way it works now is that everyone is very, very afraid, because if they actually give advice that the government does not want to hear or say something that the Premier does not like or does not want to hear, they are effectively going to get the sack. And I think the member for Malvern went through a very long list of people who have been sacked in less than two years of this government.

From my own portfolio area, very early in the term, 19 water boards were summarily dismissed. There were a lot of very good people there. The majority of people who go on statutory bodies and government boards go there to do good things for Victoria. They are not there to play politics; they are there to fulfil their role under the particular act of Parliament they are appointed under, and it amazed me that at that time the Minister for Water would summarily sack 19 water boards with all that corporate memory in such an important sector here in Victoria.

The list goes on with the issues around PrimeSafe and some of the other statutory authorities in the Minister for Agriculture’s portfolio. Again, they were good people who wanted to do good things for Victorians but they were effectively forced out because they were not of the right political persuasion or they would not do what the government wanted them to do, which quite often was contrary to their appointment and to the acts of Parliament they worked under. We have debated this issue at length in this house and I am sure we will talk about it for a long time into the future. The classic example would be the Country Fire Authority (CFA). There is a CFA act which encompasses a volunteers charter, and the CFA board, the CEO and the chief fire officer had a responsibility under those provisions to do certain things. So in this place at this time it is all about, ‘Do as the Premier says; otherwise you’ll get the sack and you’ll be out of a job’. I think the member for Malvern has pointed out very clearly what this bill does in getting rid of statutory officers here in Victoria who believe they were appointed for a set period of time, had employment, had a job to do and are now out of work.

When it comes to the issue of freedom of information, I have three examples I would like to put on the public record. Victorians will remember, when we were in government, the Regional Victoria Living Expo and what that did in trying to sell country Victoria here in Melbourne. The government supposedly commissioned a report to examine the effectiveness of the expo and Damian Drum, who was a member for Northern Victoria Region in the other place before he moved on to be the federal member for Murray, lodged a request for an FOI around that report on 2 February 2016. A period of 210 days elapsed while we waited for a response around that particular FOI. It is 165 days overdue, and we are still waiting. We complained to the Freedom of Information Commissioner, who has investigated and replied that the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources has stated to the commissioner that we will have a response soon. After 165 days of it being overdue, we are still waiting for a response on that particular FOI.

I talked earlier about the issues of PrimeSafe. Again a request was made that PrimeSafe provide documents to the department of agriculture or the office of the Minister for Agriculture regarding changes to regulations for the sale of meat at farm gates and farmers markets here in Victoria. That request was lodged on 1 March 2016. We have been waiting 182 days for a response around that FOI. It is 137 days overdue, and again we are still waiting on that particular one. This request was also referred to the FOI commissioner, who again found strong grounds to investigate the lengthy delay. Again the commissioner was told by the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources that a response would be with us soon. It is still coming.

Another particular frustration with this request was the lengths that my office had to go to in chasing up the FOI commissioner just to get a simple confirmation that the request had been received. It took five emails over the course of 14 days just to get acknowledgement that it was lodged, so do not tell me that the FOI is working under this current government. By that stage the 45‑day statutory period for processing had already passed. The other one was a request for advice that Goulburn‑Murray Water had provided to the department or the Minister for Water’s office about options for resetting the connections project. That request was lodged on 24 March 2016 and we were waiting 158 days for a response to that request. It was 113 days overdue, and when we finally got the response it was that there were no documents identified as relevant to our request.

Are we to believe that Goulburn‑Murray Water provided absolutely no advice to the Minister for Water or the department about the resetting of the connections project, or if you are a cynic, is the government actually reviewing the FOI loopholes to actually hide information around that particular project where there is a major refit going on? Any reasonable person would have thought the water authority would be providing advice to the government as to how that project would be reset, but they are saying there are no documents identified as at all relevant to that request.

So there may have been very good intentions, as the member for Broadmeadows said, when former Premier John Cain introduced FOI legislation, but if you look particularly at how the process is working under this current government, it is just not working. It is a constant frustration for not only members of Parliament but also members of the public who want to access general reasonable information about the functioning of government. All they get are excuses, stalling and people not returning emails and not returning phone calls. There are FOI officers in all the departments, and it is their job to make sure this process works properly, but under this government I believe their operating instructions are to make sure this process does not work properly, because it is broken. It needs to be fixed. I do not believe this particular bill fixes the problem at all, but rather it sets up a structure that will make it even worse into the future. The opposition will oppose the bill. It needs significant amendment to ensure that the FOI process here in Victoria serves the best interests of the public.

We are all elected to be parliamentarians, to come here and represent the public and do good things for the people of Victoria, not to have executive government be the plaything of a Premier who just wants to bully everyone who does not agree with him. We have seen example after example of that, and I am afraid all the people I talk to, particularly in my electorate, just cannot wait for the last Saturday in November 2018, when they can rid this state of the Premier and the Labor government.


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