South Australia’s parliament has voted to protect the government and public servants from defamation and other civil lawsuits that could arise from the publishing of information under the state’s renewed open government push.
The new immunity laws protect those acting for the government against defamation and breach of confidence liability, by recognising that they are not “the author or originator of information”. It does not affect the legal liability of the creator a document’s content.
Employment and Information Economy Minister, Gail Gago, told state parliament the new laws aimed to “enable the quick release of information without the need for elaborate vetting of each individual document”.
Environment Minister Ian Hunter added that the previous lack of protection against being sued over the content in published government documents “weighs heavily on the minds of public servants” when deciding whether or not to make data public.
The government has promoted the amendment to the Civil Liability Act as a critical foundation to the establishment of a culture of “default disclosure” and transparency in the South Australian public service, which has recently being criticised for intentionally skirting the intent of freedom of information laws to keep information hidden.
South Australia Ombudsman Megan Philpot has described SA agencies’ approach to information disclosure as “wanting”, and said the sector as a whole “demonstrates a lack of understanding or commitment to the democratic principles which underpin the [FOI] Act”.
In his latest annual report, South Australian anti-corruption chief Bruce Lander also sent a subtle warning to public servants that they were in his cross-hairs over suspected use of personal emails to circumvent FOI laws.
The immunity laws will cover the most commonly sought categories of information – such as credit card expenditure, procurement data, gifts registers, travel costs and consultancies – pushing them to be proactively published rather than being caught up in often lengthy FOI applications and legal processes.
SA Attorney-General John Rau pointed out that in 2011-12, processing FOI applications cost the state government $10.4 million, of which only $222,000 was recovered through fees.