Ministers lose non-disclosure powers

The Federal Government has unveiled the first phase of its Freedom of Information (FOI) law reform. The changes were announced yesterday by Cabinet Secretary, Senator John Faulkner.

In keeping with its pre-election promises, Federal Cabinet has agreed to abolish conclusive certificates. This step will remove Ministerial power to block access to documents requested by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) under FOI law.

“The Government is committed to reforming the Commonwealth FOI Act and to promoting a pro-disclosure culture,” Senator Faulkner said in a statement.

“Abolishing conclusive certificates is a step towards restoring trust and integrity in the handling of Government information, as all decisions refusing access will now be subject to full independent merits review.”

The AAT will review exemption claims made by Ministers to prevent the release of documents.

Legislation to abolish conclusive certificates will be introduced in the next session of Parliament. The Government will also release an exposure draft of FOI reform legislation for public comment and consultation. It will include the establishment of an FOI Commissioner, along with other proposals to “streamline” the FOI Act.

“The consultation process will allow the Government to seek a range of views on how we should be improving FOI and implementing the 2007 FOI election commitments,” Senator Faulkner said.

“This will be the most significant overhaul of the FOI Act since its inception in 1982.”

The Attorney-General plans to suspend the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) inquiry into FOI laws, scheduled for December 2008. The ALRC has agreed to defer the review until Government reforms have been implemented.

The Federal Government plans to introduce the final legislation in 2009.

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