Transparency loophole ‘can be abused’
CHECKS and balances are needed to ensure governments do not abuse the systems put in place to improve accountability and transparency, lawyers say.
University of Queensland constitutional lawyer Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh was commenting on calls for reform of Freedom of Information laws and use of commercial-in-confidence classifications as a reason why information cannot be released.
Dr Ananian-Welsh said there were issues with the over-classification of documents and a need for independent oversight.
"If you are going to have the culture of accountability and transparency then we need systems that involve independent oversight as a guide against over-classification," Dr Ananian-Welsh said.
She said oversight went to the heart of concerns about the issuing of warrants.
"Most warrants can be issued not necessarily by a serving judge but a registrar. Where warrants are issued, that should be by a Supreme Court judge to provide more robust oversight," Dr Ananian-Welsh said.
Townsville lawyer Evan Sarinas said classifications such as commercial-in-confidence were needed to protect commercially sensitive information but that in some instances they could be abused. One recent example involved a failure to disclose the lease costs of the new office of state Member for Townsville Scott Stewart.
When asked, Clerk of the Queensland Parliament Neil Laurie told the Townsville Bulletin he could not immediately provide a figure but regardless it was not something they released because they wanted to maintain a competitive market.
Mr Sarinas said it was illusory to claim commercial-in-confidence in this instance because the lease arrangements would be available through a search of public records.
"I think commercial-in-confidence is not necessarily overused but it can be abused if governments are trying to hide mistakes or misdemeanours," Mr Sarinas said.
He said politicians should "hold their feet to the fire" to constantly explain and justify decisions to the public.
Australia's Right to Know campaign was launched by Australian media this week calling for six areas of reform.
Those areas are the right to contest any kind of search warrant on journalists or news organisations, a law change to ensure public sector whistleblowers are adequately protected, a new regime that limits which documents can be marked "secret", a review of Freedom of Information laws, that journalists be exempt from national security laws enacted over the past seven years that currently can put them in jail for doing their job and defamation law reforms.