FEDERAL Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has vowed to restrict access to Freedom of Information laws and "correct an anomaly" that allows parliament to be subjected to requests for official documents.
The parliament -- or, more specifically, the three departments that run parliament in Canberra -- has long been considered off limits to federal FOI laws, which include an exemption protecting anything that might be considered contempt.
However, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, which oversees FOI laws, this month declared parliament had actually been subject to FOI for more than a decade.
When legislation establishing a Parliamentary Budget Office was reintroduced with a specific FOI exemption, the OAIC reconsidered the status of the three departments.
"For years, it had been assumed that the FOI Act did not apply to the parliamentary departments," FOI commissioner James Popple told The Australian yesterday. "That was probably the case up until 1999.
However, when the Parliamentary Service Act 1999 was enacted, those departments became subject to the FOI Act, even though this may not have been intended."
The departments of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and parliamentary services are understood to have challenged the OAIC interpretation and taken the issue up with Ms Roxon, who supported their view of the intent of the FOI Act.
"It has been long-accepted practice that the parliamentary departments are exempt from FOI," a spokesman for Ms Roxon said yesterday.
"The government is currently considering its options to correct this anomaly."
Dr Popple said that was "a matter for the government and the parliament". It remains to be seen whether the Coalition, Greens or independents would be willing to fight to retain the current scope of the FOI Act. In Britain, such scrutiny contributed to the 2009 parliamentary expenses furore and the downfall of numerous MPs. However, former British prime minister Tony Blair, in his memoir, expressed his regret over the introduction of FOI laws, describing it as "naive, foolish and irresponsible".
Australia's FOI laws were overhauled in 2009 and are due to be reviewed again. Ms Roxon is also considering a new charging regime that would potentially make FOIs more costly and time-consuming for applicants, who would also be unable to lodge complex requests.
The government is also examining the reach of FOI as far as the National Broadband Network is concerned, while the work of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship is also being investigated by the OAIC.