Monday, July 06, 2020

Daily secrecy

After a long break, the government is back inserting secrecy clauses in legislation. This time its the Overseas Investment Amendment Bill (No 3), which in its clause allowing Ministers to exempt purchasers of farm land from the usual rules also allows them to exempt an exemption from the publication requirement:

However, the publication of an exemption under this section, or of the reasons for granting an exemption, may be deferred or dispensed with (in whole or in part) if the relevant Ministers are satisfied on reasonable grounds that good reason for withholding the exemption or the reasons (as the case may be) would exist under the Official Information Act 1982.

Two points on this: firstly, it mirrors the existing law on non-farm exemptions in s61F(6). Its also a significant improvement on the existing law, which doesn't have any publication requirement at all! At the same time, it highlights a problem with the current regime, in that Ministers are making decisions about secrecy, in an area where there is obvious scope for corruption (*cough* Peter Thiel *cough*), with no oversight whatsoever.

Proactive publication of exemptions is good, but we need some assurance that the Minister is not giving sweetheart exemptions to dubious people on dubious grounds and declaring it all secret. As for how to do that, I'm wondering if there can be an automatic review by the Ombudsman of any decision not to publish, as well as a (relatively short, to permit an effective electoral response) time limit to ensure that these decisions eventually see the light of day and Ministers can be held accountable for them.

(In the meantime, I suspect there's fun to be had by requesting historic exemptions not published under s61F(6). It would almost certainly have to go all the way to the Ombudsman, but that in itself will ensure that there is some review of them).

The Bill is currently before the Finance and Expenditure Committee and open for submissions here.