Freedom is now a sleeper

THE late Professor Patrick O’Brien of the University of WA often openly criticised governments, political parties, and public figures by claiming they had de-authorised themselves.

I suspect very few appreciated what he was driving at when making such a grave criticism.

But there is an interesting case before the WA Supreme Court which demonstrates his point well and goes to the heart of what West Australians faced during the costly WA Inc era which so riled him that he became a leading critic of those then in power.

Crucial to understanding those days, when huge sums of public cash was squandered on a pie-in-the-sky petrochemical plant and bailouts of suspect businesses, was the fact that the public usually couldn’t get all the facts before inevitable disaster struck.

Commercial and cabinet confid-entially were pronounced justifying secrecy on costly crackpot schemes.

No one in the then opposition objected more to this clandestine feature of our political system than Nedlands MLA, now Premier, Richard Court. And rightly so.

So it’s surprising that his Government is treading the very same path and is even being sluggish in reforming our far from perfect and relatively new Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.

A case in point deals with docu-ments on timber railway sleepers, an issue Labor’s environment spokesperson Judy Edwards has pursued with some verve.

So exasperated did she become about getting them that she applied to Information Commissioner, Bronwyn Keighley-Gerardy, for access.

But Transport Minister Murray Criddle again blocked her by applying to WA’s Supreme Court to overturn Mrs Keighley-Gerardy’s ruling that they be released.

One doesn’t have to be a genius to guess Professor O’Brien’s response to that.

When Dr Edwards quizzed Mr Criddle in Parliament on why he was set to spend $4,000 on a Supreme Court appearance in a bid to block releasing the document he said he had advice that Mrs Keighley-Gerardy’s “decision was wrong”.

In the process, Dr Edwards will have to find at least $4,000 to meet his challenge.

Even if that were proven to be technically correct one can’t help wondering why documents about some sleepers are being concealed by refusal to release them followed by costly legal action.

“What are they hiding,” one long-time journalist who wrote hundreds of articles about WA Inc shenani-gans said when we discussed Mr Criddle’s amazing over-reaction.

But the Criddle response is not the only case of the Court Government’s less than impressive record on FOI.

Mrs Keighley-Gerardy is widely regarded as one who has sought to broaden public access to information and in cases involving disputes has pressed for conciliation rather than drawn out legalistic moves.

Several keen observers are watching to see if she is re-appointed in the coming weeks now that her seven-year term is up.

But of greater concern is the way that recommendations in her annual reports to Parliament for changes to the legislation have been ignored by the Government.

The Government’s response to this is undoubtedly that it is gearing up to make changes all at once, not piecemeal.

Well, that’s okay except it’s taking one hell of a long time.

Labor MP John Kobelke recently asked Attorney-General Peter Foss several questions.

“On what date was the statutory review of the operation and effectiveness of the Freedom of Information Act established?” Mr Kobelke said.

Answer: June 11, 1997. The review was completed on September 1, 1997.

“Has the Minister prepared a report based on the review of the Freedom of Information Act and if so, on what date was the report completed?”

Answer: October 31, 1997.

“What action, if any, is the Minister proposing to take following this statutory review of the Freedom of Information Act?”

Answer: “Consider the recommendations of the review and if accepted by the Government introduce amending legislation.”

But it’s now October, 2000!

The snail’s pace of possible reform means it will be years before a 1997 review is acted upon.

One can safely say our conservative MPs have effectively de-authorised themselves so they’ll have a tough time speaking out with authority when in opposition on FOI issues.

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