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PostSubject: Labor shuts off access to secrets   Fri 28 May 2010 - 2:20

Labor shuts off access to secrets
SEAN NICHOLLS
May 28, 2010


INVESTIGATORS are repeatedly refused access to critical documents by agencies such as the Roads and Traffic Authority, despite commitments by the Premier, Kristina Keneally, and her predecessor, Nathan Rees, to reform the government's approach to freedom of information.

The Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour, is seeking to change a nine-word loophole in the legislation that governs his powers and which he says significantly hinders his ability to investigate government agencies.

The loophole allows agencies to refuse access to documents they say are covered by legal professional privilege.

Mr Barbour says his requests, over 2½ years, for a change have been met with ''a series of unhelpful fob-offs'' and has warned he is preparing to make a special report to Parliament to force action on the issue.

''The amendment would ensure proper scrutiny of government agencies [which are] the subject of investigation,'' Mr Barbour told the Herald. ''Importantly, it would remove the opportunity for agencies to hide behind this exemption.

''It's difficult to understand why the government is so reluctant to make such a simple yet important amendment to the Ombudsman's Act.''

The NSW Ombudsman, who holds royal commission powers of investigation, is the only ombudsman in Australia hamstrung by the legal loophole.

The Police Integrity Commission and the Independent Commission Against Corruption are not prevented from accessing any type of document.

Mr Barbour has written to at least two premiers, not including Ms Keneally, and the director-general of the Department of Premier and Cabinet raising his concerns and requesting an amendment to the act.

In a parliamentary committee report tabled last month, he revealed that draft legislation was being prepared, but that it was ''pulled before it went to Parliament''.

Mr Barbour described a letter he received from Leigh Sanderson, the deputy director-general of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, as ''another in a series of unhelpful fob-offs''.

In the Ombudsman's latest annual report, Mr Barbour highlighted his frustration at being stonewalled during ''a very significant investigation into the RTA'' and another into a freedom-of-information request refused by the Board of Studies.

During the Ombudsman's investigation into the Board of Studies' refusal to grant a group of students access to their raw and ''cut-off'' HSC marks, he was refused access to 60 documents on the grounds of legal professional privilege.

Refusals were also made during an investigation into how the RTA handled freedom-of-information requests, which uncovered a longstanding practice of sending draft determinations to the office of the minister and not acting until it received their endorsement.

In its report, the government-controlled Committee on the Office of the Ombudsman and the Police Integrity Commission has recommended the act be changed, but the government has yet to respond.

Earlier this month Ms Keneally issued a memo to her ministers and department heads warning them to abide by new freedom-of-information laws which take effect on July 1.

http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/labor-shuts-off-access-to-secrets-20100527-whuh.html

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