ALRC to tackle government secrecy laws

The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) welcomed the announcement today by the Commonwealth Attorney-General, the Hon Robert McClelland MP, of new Terms of Reference for the ALRC to review secrecy provisions in federal legislation.
The Terms of Reference ask the ALRC to focus on:

  • ‘the importance of balancing the need to protect Commonwealth information and the public interest in an open and accountable system of government’;
  • ‘the increased need to share information within and between governments, and with the private sector’; and
  • achieving more ‘comprehensive, consistent and workable laws and practices in relation to the protection of Commonwealth information’.

ALRC President Professor David Weisbrot noted that the Commission has been actively involved in this general area for some time.

“Over the last decade or so, the ALRC has provided reports and recommendations to government about improving freedom of information laws, privacy laws and practices, the protection of classified and security sensitive information, the preservation of archival resources, and client legal privilege in federal investigations.

“Federal legislation currently contains a large number of secrecy and confidentiality provisions that impose duties on public servants not to disclose information that comes to them by virtue of their office—and many of these provisions create serious criminal offences for unauthorised disclosure, whether or not that results in any harm to the national interest.

“This inquiry fits squarely into our continuing effort to promote more open, transparent and accountable government in Australia. In fact, in 2004, the ALRC recommended a major review of federal secrecy provisions—and so we are pleased to be the body asked to undertake this project.

Professor Rosalind Croucher, Commissioner in charge of the new inquiry, stated that “Our first task is to map all of the secrecy and confidentiality provisions, which are found across a wide range of laws and regulations.

“Given the importance of this area, there is a pressing need to consolidate the scattered legislation, and ensure the terms are consistent with the Constitution and harmonised across the statute book. Most of all, we need to balance the need for protection of Commonwealth information with an underlying ethos that places a premium on maintaining an open and accountable government by providing access to information wherever possible.”

In keeping with its standard procedures, the ALRC will prepare one or more discussion documents for widespread community consultation, before providing its final report and recommendations to the Attorney-General by 31 October 2009.