Production of documents

The Greens also will support the motion put forward by Ms Wooldridge this morning. As is well known, the Greens have put forward many documents motions over our time here and generally would support documents motions put forward by other members of the Council and other parties because we believe that government needs to be much more open and transparent than it is.
Wednesday, May 10, 2017 - 10:15am
Speaker:
Sue Pennicuik

Ms PENNICUIK (Southern Metropolitan) — The Greens also will support the motion put forward by Ms Wooldridge this morning. As is well known, the Greens have put forward many documents motions over our time here and generally would support documents motions put forward by other members of the Council and other parties because we believe that government needs to be much more open and transparent than it is.

I take up Mr Mulino's point when he mentioned that those who have more commonly been in government would understand the tensions between releasing information and not releasing information. I think it is of interest to the people in this chamber and the people in the wider community that in terms of releasing information held by governments and government departments, Australia is pretty behind the eight ball when compared to other jurisdictions around the world that routinely release a lot more information to the public than is the tradition in Australia, particularly by state governments.

That has not just been our experience with this state government. We have had experiences with this and previous state governments that have been very guarded in the amount of information they have released. There are lots of documents motions calling for information that we believe should be openly available to the public and is not. Release of documents requests are refused on spurious grounds such as commercial-in-confidence and cabinet-in-confidence reasons. All sorts of other reasons are given that are not even legal and the credence of which is also doubtful. I think governments in Australia could get a lot better at releasing information to the public, particularly information about the way their own taxpayer funds are being spent.

The motion that Ms Wooldridge has put before the house today asks for a copy of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee briefing folder provided to and used by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) when appearing before the inquiry into the financial and performance outcomes in February 2016 and also in February 2017. The hearings into the financial and performance outcomes are only a recent development by the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee and have only actually been occurring for two years.

I fully supported the introduction of that function by the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee, because it is in fact a public accounts function and one that is carried out in a more extensive way in most other Australian states and in the federal Parliament than has been the case traditionally in Victoria. It has been a very good initiative of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee. I spoke last year when the report into the financial and performance outcomes was tabled. I made the comment that it was a good development for Victoria to have these hearings and for departments to not only attend these hearings but also to provide answers to questions about the performance outcomes of the particular departments in the lead-up to the hearings. I made the point in my contribution that there was a lot of very good information in the report that was tabled in Parliament last May, and we are looking forward to the tabling of the next one in the next sitting week. As I have also said, there is a lot of very interesting and useful information for the Parliament and the public in those reports.

What Ms Wooldridge is seeking are copies of the briefing notes provided to the secretary. Her description of her experience of the FOI process and the request for the documents from the Department of Health and Human Services certainly was interesting in terms of compliance with the act, to start with, and it being a very long, drawn-out process. It is particularly interesting given Ms Wooldridge did tell us that she has received briefing papers from, for example, the Department of Premier and Cabinet, the Department of Treasury and Finance, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Department of Education and Training — some hundreds of pages from each of those departments — without too much trouble. Those departments have been able to provide the same documents that the Department of Health and Human Services has not so far provided, and that is why Ms Wooldridge has moved this motion here.

You have to question why the motion would have to come here at all and why if most departments could supply the information, the DHHS could not. I understand and acknowledge that the DHHS would have probably a lot more sensitive information than, say, some of the other departments would have in the briefing papers, but of course that sensitive information can be redacted when the papers are provided.

Of course there is a very real risk in calling for and providing these documents that in future the secretaries, deputy secretaries and departments will come to the hearings with less information in their documents if they think they will be released. That is the risk of this process. On the other hand, if all departments apart from the DHHS can in fact supply hundreds of pages of their briefing notes to the member, it begs the question as to whether that information, if it has been released to Ms Wooldridge by all the other departments, should not be released publicly anyway by those departments — that is, in terms of the conduct of the hearings, whether those briefing notes, with sensitive or personal information redacted, should not actually be provided to the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee and subsequently put on the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee website.

I go back to the point I made before that other governments around the world do routinely provide that sort of information to the public. The information that we are talking about here is information that the committee is asking about: how the money that has been appropriated to those departments by the budget has actually been spent in the months intervening between a budget in May and the hearings of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee into the financial and performance outcomes the following February. That is important information that should be available to the public in any case.

I have noticed in the hearings, too, that the departments do come very well prepared and are able to answer pretty well any question that is put to them by committee members. They clearly go to a lot of trouble to prepare their briefing notes so there is good information in them. I will repeat what I just said before: why is that information not made more widely available when it is about the expenditure of public money? I would like to see the departments come to the hearings armed with the same comprehensive information, and I hope that that will continue.

Motion agreed to.