Address in Reply
Thursday, 1 March 2012
The Hon. R.I. LUCAS (11:05): I rise to support the Address in Reply and to thank the Governor for his speech for the opening of this session of parliament. There are two or three issues that I want to address in my contribution. The first relates to freedom of information and the government's position in relation to a number of issues under that broad heading.
Members will be aware that on a number of occasions I have expressed the view, and I suspect some are coming to agree with that view, that this government is the most secretive government in this state's history, not just in relation to its attitude towards freedom of information but in a range of other areas as well. This morning I want to address the issue of freedom of information, because the government always seeks to pat itself on the back in relation to how open, transparent and accountable it can be in relation to freedom of information. I would like to raise a number of issues, at least, which would certainly prove that claim as wrong and erroneous as many of us would know it to be.
I noticed earlier in the week that treasurer Snelling took a Dorothy Dixer from his own backbench and indicated that the government is now going to make information in relation to Treasury analysis of economic information available on the Treasury website. Having patted himself on the back—because he couldn't find anyone else to pat him on the back—he went on to say:
This news may be of particular interest to the Hon. Rob Lucas in the other place. Mr Lucas has a habit of submitting monthly freedom of information requests to my department for their internal economic briefings rather than doing his own work and sourcing his own information directly from the ABS. I hope that by—
Then members interjected, and that would include, of course, Messrs Atkinson, Koutsantonis and a variety of others. Then Mr Snelling went on to say:
[I hope that publishing Treasury's] economic briefs online will relieve some of the burden that Mr Lucas has placed on the hardworking public servants of the Department of Treasury and Finance, who spend considerable time and precious taxpayer resources—
Then he went on to say:
They spend considerable time and precious taxpayer resources to process his requests for information he could just as easily gain directly from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
I want to quickly analyse those particular claims of the Treasurer.
During the period of the former Liberal government, I became aware, obviously, that Treasury, on a regular basis, provided internal economic briefings to the treasurer of the day in relation to economic statistics, whether they were provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, or companies like Access Economics or organisations like the South Australian Centre for Economic Studies. It would not just be a summary of the statistics because, clearly, that is publicly available or available by way of subscription: it would provide a free and frank assessment of the information included in that particular bulletin and, on occasions, a free and frank assessment as to, potentially, the warning signs for the government of the day for the treasurer to take into account in relation to the health of the South Australian economy. Certainly, during that particular period, they were useful briefings because, as I said, they did not just provide a verbatim statement or summary of what was publicly available: they offered Treasury analysis or commentary as well.
For the first few years after the change of government in 2002, obviously being aware that these documents were provided by the Treasury to the Treasurer on a regular basis, the Treasurer is correct, on a monthly basis we would submit FOI requests for these confidential economic briefings provided to the Treasurer.
As I said, for the first couple of years the documents that were provided to the opposition under that freedom of information request continued to include the same level of free and frank advice that I had seen when we were in government; that is, on occasions there would be commentary from Treasury raising warning flags to the Treasurer and to the government about what these particular figures indicated. On occasions they might even raise issues about policy directions in a number of areas, levels of taxation, for example, and the impact of government policies on economic indicators such as retail sales, etc.
For the first few years that was what occurred. Obviously what then happened—this was under former treasurer Foley—was there was increasing concern that the opposition was getting access to this sort of economic analysis that was being provided by Treasury. What we gradually saw over a period of time was, firstly, a sanitising of the commentary from Treasury. Clearly, a note had gone out to indicate that the opposition was getting access to this information and that needed to be borne in mind when analysis was being put to paper in relation to the economic statistics and indicators.
Further along the track the government then developed, together with Treasury, a device to avoid disclosure in any way of the full and frank advice the Treasury was providing in these areas. The device they used, and that they continue to use these days, is that that sort of advice is now provided to a cabinet committee. For example, over a number of years now, when the South Australian Centre for Economic Studies produces a quarterly bulletin on the state's economy and government policy, the Treasurer and Treasury have refused access to that, claimed exemption in full under clause 1 of the Freedom of Information Act, because that particular briefing, which had been provided to the Treasurer, has been walked into a cabinet committee and provided to other members of that particular cabinet committee as well.
By using that particular device, which had not been used under the previous government, that advice was provided to the Treasurer, would have been subject to the FOI process if the Labor opposition at that time had either had the wit to seek that particular briefing under FOI or were prepared to get off their backsides and work hard enough using the FOI process to seek that document. What this government did was that it, through the device of the cabinet committee, used that device to prevent the disclosure of what was previously being provided under freedom of information through the requests that I had submitted.
So we now regularly get, under the monthly FOI requests, it is correct, the sanitised versions. The first one, on retail sales, has been placed on the Treasury website in the last 24 hours, consistent with the Treasurer's announcement earlier this week. The opposition has continued to get those, but the full and frank advice provided by Treasury is prevented from disclosure by being walked into cabinet committees on a regular basis. That, of course, is not referred to in the Dorothy Dixer by treasurer Snelling in the house earlier this week.
Clearly the FOI that has now been submitted by the opposition has led to this policy change; it would not have occurred without the persistence of the opposition in lodging these FOI requests, and journalists and others other than the opposition will now have access to that sort of information.
I might also add that, when the Treasurer is critical, when he says—disingenuously I might add—that this is a waste of the time of hardworking public servants in Treasury processing the request, they have been doing it for eight years. It is a simple 'yes, yes, yes' to documents that have already been produced because they have been sanitised and they know them to be, and it is 'no, no, no' when they walk them through the cabinet committee process because they know that they do not want to release that particular document.
Whilst we obviously welcome the fact that some limited, sanitised Treasury advice and analysis will now be placed on the website for all to see, journalists, commentators and others should not be deluded into thinking that this is part of some open, transparent and accountable government and a change of heart. It is consistent with a minister and a government that is the most secretive in the state's history, particularly in relation to freedom of information. The government continues to hide from public release, through the FOI process or indeed any other, a range of documents by walking them through the cabinet committee process.
Secondly, in relation to freedom of information in this most secretive government in the state's history, there have been recent examples that I want to draw to the public's attention. I notice that in the last 48 hours or so—certainly that is when I became aware of it—The Australian has, on its website, an example of a recent freedom of information request that it submitted. I do not have a copy of that particular one at the moment—but I am sure my hardworking staff will have it on their desk or my desk—but I raise the general example of a similar one submitted by the Leader of the Opposition's office in relation to the office of Jay Weatherill.
This particular FOI request was for all files, documents and briefs held by the office of Jay Weatherill MP for his information as the incoming premier. I will not go into the actual drafting of that particular FOI request, but the element of it that I want to address is that the request actually said 'the office of Jay Weatherill MP'. The purpose of the FOI was, in essence, to try to get the incoming brief for the incoming premier. This was at the time when the former premier had been knifed by the incoming premier and Mr Malinauskas, the head of the shoppies union in South Australia. There are incoming briefs prepared by the Department of the Premier and Cabinet on behalf of all departments and agencies for the incoming premier, and they would have been on the desk for incoming premier Mr Weatherill.
However, the FOI request had been drafted specifically to say 'the office of Jay Weatherill MP'. That request, which had been addressed to the Minister for Education and Child Development's office because that was the position the Hon. Mr Weatherill held at that time, and which went to that particular office, was rejected on the following grounds:
In my view, your application has not been made to a Minister of the Crown as defined under section 4 of the FOI Act, which states an agency is defined as a Minister of the Crown.
As your application seeks access to files, documents and briefs held by the Office of Jay Weatherill MP and is not an application to Hon. Jay Weatherill, in his capacity as Minister for a particular portfolio, such as Education or Early Childhood Education, I have declined to make a determination on your application under the FOI Act, on the basis that your request was not made to an agency for the purposes of the FOI Act.
There are a number of examples like that. The example from The Australian, which is up on their website, was for information in relation to the current Minister for Education and Child Development, the Hon. Grace Portolesi. It obviously related to the scandal from late last year, where the minister took, at taxpayer expense of $7,000 each for herself and for her daughter, business class flights on an overseas trip. The Australian was obviously seeking information of public interest in relation to this. It said:
Information...specifically, all travel-related expenses—summary documents, applications and acquittals, not including receipts—for Grace Portolesi and, where applicable, her daughter Allegra.
It is absolutely clear what was being sought in relation to this particular freedom of information request. Again, the Minister for Education and Child Development officer's response to this, in the letter back to the Freedom of Information Editor, Mr Sean Parnell, of The Australian, was as follows:
In my view, your application has not been made to a Minister of the Crown as defined under section 4 of the FOI Act, which states an agency is defined as a Minister of the Crown.
As your application seeks access to documents that relate to 'Grace Portolesi and, where applicable, her daughter Allegra', and does not relate to Ms Portolesi as a Minister of the Crown, such as, Minister for Education and Child Development, nor indicate a time period for such documents, your application cannot be processed.
Both those examples—and there are others—are an outrageous perversion of the intent of the freedom of information legislation. They are indicative of a government comprised of ministers, such as former minister Weatherill, now premier Weatherill, and minister Portolesi, who are part of a government that is the most secretive government in this state's history. These are devices being used to prevent freedom of information. They are devices being used to stymie access to information of genuine and general public interest, such as The Australian's request, which was seeking information, as I said, on the minister spending $7,000 for business class travel for herself and her daughter. No-one can argue that is not a genuine matter of public interest.
The request in relation to incoming briefing notes to an incoming premier who had just knifed a former premier are matters of genuine public interest. In both cases, and in others, this government, its ministers, its agencies and its officers are using these devices to prevent the release of information which is being genuinely sought and is a matter of genuine public interest.
This device that 'because in your request you did not refer to Grace Portolesi, Minister for Education and Child Development, and because you just said Grace Portolesi', when everyone knows who Grace Portolesi is—it has been addressed to her office as the Minister for Education and Child Development. It was not addressed to her personal address, whatever that might be, it was sent to the Minister for Education and Child Development's office. It related to the name of the minister—in this case Grace Portolesi and, in the previous one, Jay Weatherill—had clearly been processed as correspondence through the ministerial office by ministerial officers and then this device was used to subvert the intention of the Freedom of Information Act by saying, 'Well, you didn't describe the minister by the correct title.'
What next? If someone makes a spelling error in the spelling of the name of the minister—and this is after some weeks, because this doesn't happen straightaway. It is not as if 24 hours later you get a response. This government makes sure these things are strung out for some weeks and, in some cases, months, even though they are all meant to be processed within 28 days. You eventually get a knock back on the grounds of some absurd technicality such as this which, as I said and I repeat, subverts the true intent of the freedom of information legislation.
The third example of freedom of information I want to highlight is again in relation to another monthly request that we have put in since the turn of government for the monitoring that was being produced by a taxpayer-funded media monitoring branch for all government ministers and members and, as we have now subsequently found out, some government agencies as well. I know that the monitoring brief goes to all of the spin doctors—not only in the ministers' offices, but also the hundreds existing within government departments and agencies.
Members are familiar with the fact that we receive a summary on a regular basis through the day, Monday to Friday, containing a transcript of matters of state interest on radio. I was aware, after the change of government in 2002, that the media monitoring did not just provide that, it actually provided transcripts of television news services—not just the news service but current affairs programs, for example, and the like. Those transcripts were provided to the government of the day.
We were intrigued as to why, as an opposition, we could not get access to that sort of information. So, from 2002, on a regular basis, we submitted this monthly request to the government to get a copy of the actual transcript which was submitted to ministers so that it would be even-handed. Now, after months on each occasion—we would get it months later—we eventually, on a regular basis, started getting the media monitoring transcripts and then, ultimately, in recent years it has turned into a CD which is provided to me as the opposition and I then share it amongst my colleagues and others as well.
That monitor, in those days, provided the TV transcripts but, of course, in recent years, we have started to receive a service through the Parliamentary Library, which now provides transcripts of television services and, indeed, the vision as well. That is a very good service which is made available to all members of parliament.
But the media monitoring CD-ROM that is provided still provides to us now, albeit on a delayed basis, access to information which is not available to all members of parliament. It provides transcripts of the Country Hour, it provides summaries of TV news—which, as I have said, are now available through the library—it provides an hourly talkback radio summary and radio news from every station is provided in that particular media monitoring. So, as I said, in recent years, the difference between what is provided to the government, other than on timing, has been reduced due to the work being done by the Parliamentary Library, which we acknowledge.
On varying occasions through the last 10 years, we have raised this with government ministers and said, 'Look, why don't you save yourself a lot of trouble with your FOI requests you keep complaining about? We get these things every month. Why don't you just release them publicly [the TV transcripts in the early years]? Why don't you just release them publicly to all members of parliament rather than us go through the process every month of having to submit an FOI request and getting them eventually, albeit late?'
The government response on every occasion was a refusal to provide it. What it did for a period of time, until the library came into play, was it gave the government an advantage for a period of months. The government had access to the transcripts of TV news services and current affairs programs, and the opposition did not have the same access. It had a competitive advantage, and it wanted to keep that advantage all through that particular process.
Even through the period when we had the supposedly independent Peter Lewis as the speaker, who said that he was interested in transparency and accountability, he refused to ensure the release of this sort of information to the opposition as part of his arrangement with the Labor government of the day.
They are just three broad areas where this government has been subverting the true intent of freedom of information legislation. There are many others. I do not propose to canvass those today, but I did want to raise those particular areas and express my concern about the government's ongoing role in seeking to prevent the release of information.
The second and final issue I want to raise today relates to a matter of interest to members of parliament in particular—I guess it is also a public interest as well, of course—regarding those journalists who seek to cover the proceedings of parliament. I hasten to say, given that it is Address in Reply, that the views I am expressing are my views. I do not purport to represent the views of all of my colleagues and certainly my party on this particular issue. It has not been an issue, as far as I am aware, about which there has been recent debate in our party room.
I want to canvass the issue of the access of cameras and photographers to the proceedings of the parliament. On a number of occasions—and I think as recently as the last sitting week—you, Mr President, as the Presiding Member of this chamber, were moved to issue a warning to a television cameraman, and possibly a photographer as well, in relation to the guidelines that govern the access of cameramen and photographers to the proceedings of this chamber. I guess similar arguments could be made in relation to the House of Assembly as well; however, I speak in relation to this chamber.
On those occasions, Mr President, you issued a warning from the chair that the cameraman, in your view, was seeking to film or photograph a member of parliament who was sitting at the time—he was not standing and speaking—and, if that was to continue, they would be removed from the chamber. There was always the potential for a presidential-imposed sanction or ban on that cameraman or photographer, or that news organisation, for a period of time in terms of access to this particular chamber.
Looking back at the history, debate on these matters was not much of an issue many decades ago, but certainly through the period of the 70s and 80s, when the role of the Legislative Council became quite controversial, there were issues in relation to what sort of access, if any, we would provide to photographers in particular, and camera people, to the proceedings of the parliament. That went on through the 70s and 80s.
I have been reminded of a real stoush that went on between this chamber and its former president and the former editor of The Advertiser back in the early 1990s when the Liberal Party was in opposition and the Labor Party was in government. The former president, Gordon Bruce, was a meek and mild-mannered member of the Labor Party in most people's experience, but he, on behalf of this chamber, engaged in a blazing row with the editor of The Advertiser, who was then Mr Piers Ackerman.
I will not trace the whole gory history of that dispute, although it involved the exchange of correspondence and a statement to the house by the then president in February 1990 where he detailed blow by blow the derogatory remarks which had been exchanged in conversations between Mr Akerman and himself. The end result of that ended up on the front page of The Advertiser at that particular time where he was described as the new president in a flowing wig and a big white car. Some very critical comments were made of the Hon. Mr Bruce, as the president of the Legislative Council, by The Advertiser and of the Legislative Council and its chamber generally as well.
That all related to a blazing row about whether or not The Advertiser should have access to a photographer to take photographs of members of parliament when the house was sitting. This was 1990, only 20 years or so ago. We are not talking about 100 years ago; we are talking about 20 years ago. In that correspondence and in that debate, it highlighted that even at that stage there was limited access to upper houses generally, not just in South Australia, for news organisations in relation to filming.
Part of the problems in the 1970s and 1980s was that there had been a former Labor minister who had once been unflatteringly filmed picking their nose (I will not give away the sex of the minister). There have been concerns at varying occasions that the cameramen or photographers may well take film or photographs of members asleep in their chair while the parliament is sitting or may well take photographs or film of members in an undignified or unflattering pose or in undignified or unflattering behaviour.
This is not a criticism of one party or another because under both governments of both parties, these particular conventions have prevailed forever. We still have the situation (as you will recently, Mr President) where a cameraman who comes in here wanting to film or photograph a member who does not happen to be speaking at the time, that particular person is threatened from the chair with eviction from the chamber, potential bans and other sanctions.
As I said, the view that having witnessed this over a number of years is I guess informed in part by the power of social media as well. In recent times I remember seeing on Twitter someone who had been into the federal parliament and had reported that such and such a member had been playing Solitaire on their computer when they should have been following the debate in the federal parliament. That prompted various other tweets in the Twitterverse of people saying, 'I have been there and I have seen members do this and members do that.' This is instantaneous. It does not rely on journalists in the radio, the press or the television to report it. It is being reported firsthand by those who tweet or use other social media in terms of having been into parliament and seen it.
There is nothing that prevents a radio, TV or print journalist, because they do cross media presentations these days, from writing or reporting that 'the Hon. Mr Smith' was asleep in his chair, or 'the Hon. Ms Brown' was scratching her nose inappropriately, or that 'the Hon. Somebody Else' was playing solitaire or reading a book or looking at travel brochures. That was one of the criticisms in the past that a TV camera once saw a member of parliament reading a travel brochure for what was portrayed by that member of the media as an impending overseas trip at taxpayers' expense.
Nothing prevents journalists from writing that; nothing prevents them from reporting that on television or radio; nothing prevents them from tweeting it; nothing prevents them from posting it on Facebook. It is and can be public knowledge, but our conventions and guidelines say that it cannot be photographed or televised because it will hold us up to ridicule or it is undignified to allow that to occur.
Social media and modern media today are a reality and, it is, in my humble view, time. The President is a mere representative of the members of this chamber, and in the stoush with The Advertiser 20 years ago he said, 'Look, I represent the views of my colleagues in the chamber, and these are the guidelines that they support.' I am sure that this President, and the Hon. Mr Gazzola when he takes over later this year—Hon. Mr Gazzola, who thus far has not been seen as a radical reformer of anything, other than assiduously collecting the highest amount of remuneration of any backbencher in the living history of this chamber; to his credit, he does have that record on his CV—see this as an opportune time to actually do something worthwhile.
With the greatest respect to you, Mr President, as you near your retirement, I am giving up on you. But here is an opportunity for the Hon. Mr Gazzola to forge a path to consult, obviously not just myself but other members in this chamber—the Independents and minor parties—to see whether in the year 2012 we are prepared to jettison the guidelines of the past, move with the spirit of where we are now and allow access, in a more open, transparent and accountable way, to members of the media to the proceedings of the chamber.
Personally, I do not have a concern if a member of parliament is caught snoring or sleeping on the back bench: it might be a concern to some of the government ministers and some of the backbenchers. In the end, we are here being paid a reasonable, but I will not say excessive, amount of money (certainly nowhere near as much as the public servants ministers oversee), and there is the capacity for members in this chamber to work with an incoming president to see whether or not we are prepared to open up the proceedings.
As always, I will accept the majority view of members of this chamber. It should not be just the two major parties, that is, the government and the opposition. We have seven Independent and minor party members—
The Hon. T.A. Franks: Eight.
The Hon. R.I. LUCAS: Eight? Who is the eighth? Have you snuck another one in? The Greens are sneaking another one in here without me looking!
The Hon. R.I. LUCAS: The unknown, yes. Given that that person is unnamed, I did not want to refer to them. Seven or eight—I take the point the Hon. Ms Franks is making. Anyway, we have a significant number of members in this chamber who are not representatives of the two major parties at the moment. I think it is time for us to reflect on it to see whether we are prepared to move with the times. We are accountable, and we should be accountable, and when we are in here on show in my humble view, as I said, we ought to be part of that process.
The photographers from The Advertiser or The Australian should have access to the chamber. They should not have to go through the device of sneaking in here trying to get film or photographs of unnamed MPs, or particular MPs who might be in a scandal or controversy at one point in time and who are smart enough, under the guidelines, not to stand on their feet and say anything because the current guidelines protect them from being filmed or photographed in the chamber. There will still need to be sensible guidelines, even if we do open it up, and that should be part of the debate. If media organisations transgress those guidelines, clearly, there should be sanctions. I am not supporting open slather, but there should be greater access.
The other aspect of media access is that there have been restrictions on media being able to film or photograph what occurs in the public galleries. I must say, on reflection when thinking about this, I think there is probably still good argument for those tighter restrictions. The reason I submit that is that, for it to be otherwise, it may well be that it would encourage protesters and demonstrators to come to the public galleries and dump asbestos, or whatever it is, on members below, to make public protest, knowing full well that they can be filmed and photographed.
I think that, in itself, is a dangerous and demeaning spectacle of the parliament and I think the restriction we have probably makes good sense. Then again, I am interested in the views of other members on that but I do see the argument in relation to, in essence, discouraging protesters coming to parliament and being filmed or photographed doing that. If they want to protest and be filmed or photographed, they can certainly do that outside the parliament walls. It should not, in my view, be encouraged within the public gallery of this chamber. With those words, I support the Address in Reply.