01 February 2015

Victorian FOI Changes

More changes to Victoria's Freedom Of Information regime, with the Age reporting -
In his first major interview as Special Minister of State, Labor MP Gavin Jennings outlined plans to arrest a decline in the public service, replace the Freedom of Information commissioner with a new "public access counsellor" and grant the anti-corruption watchdog long-awaited authority to examine the misconduct of MPs. ...
Vowing to be more transparent than Labor has been in the past, Mr Jennings told The Sunday Age: "We want to be a government that actually rebuilds the community's confidence in the accountability and the openness of government." "We accept the community's assessment that governments generally have been too reluctant to open decision-making processes to the community's scrutiny, and we think they have been too defensive … rather than embracing the fact that public scrutiny is appropriate."
Under the changes:
  • The FOI commissioner will be converted into a new Office of the Public Access counsellor, which will have the authority to review decisions made by ministers and departments and deemed cabinet-in-confidence. 
  • The time limit for departments to respond to FOI requests will reduce from 45 to 30 days, and the time limit to consider review decisions will be reduced from 60 to 15 days. 
  • The Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission will get the power to investigate misconduct in public office and undertake preliminary investigations before deciding whether to dismiss or pursue complaints. (This is similar to proposals introduced under the previous government, but not voted on before parliament adjourned for the election.) 
  • The auditor-general will have the authority to scrutinise public private partnerships through long-awaited "follow the dollar" laws, and will also be asked to help the government reduce wasteful taxpayer-funded advertising.
In his newly created role, Mr Jennings will be responsible for overseeing the integrity changes. He warned that legislation may not be introduced until the end of the year because of their complex nature. ...
Asked if revamping the bureaucracy meant boosting staff numbers, given thousands of jobs had been lost over the past four years, Mr Jennings replied: "Certainly capability has already been brought back in, but it may actually mean that we do, over time and within financial constraints, reinvest in the workforce across the public service".
The government's new policies come after a period of significant change to Victoria's integrity regime. Although the Baillieu/Napthine governments created IBAC and the FOI Commissioner [background here and in a Privacy Law Bulletin article last year] after Labor failed to establish either despite 11 years of office, it was widely criticised for failing to give the agencies enough power.
The office of FOI Commissioner Lynne Bertolini, for instance, was branded a toothless tiger because it did not have the ability to review decisions by ministerial offices or department heads, and at one point, was unable to meet its own review deadlines because of the volume and complexity of requests, and a general lack of staff.
IBAC has also come under scrutiny in recent years, particularly because the threshold to conduct investigations was seen as too high, prompting fears that some corruption could be falling through the cracks. Mr Jennings said the government would consult widely to work out what changes the corruption-busting agency may need.